Every Man’s Defensive Caliber — The 9mm

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition

When ammunition and handgun sales are totaled, the shooting public voted with their dollars, and the 9mm Luger is easily our most popular defensive handgun cartridge. The 9mm has eclipsed the .40 S&W in sales—largely due to the .40’s snappy recoil in compact pistols. The 9mm offers a good balance of ballistics including high velocity, good penetration, and excellent accuracy in the right handgun.

Water jug exploding after being shot by a 9mm

The first water jug erupts with a JHP bullet in the air in the first jug and flying toward the second.

The slightly tapered cartridge case is a plus in feed reliability. The cartridge is small in size—allowing more to be carried in a magazine and on the person. The cartridge is a high pressure number and very efficient in modern loads. I respect the 9mm and use it often.

Unlike some advocates of the 9mm, I do not ignore physics and claim the 9mm is as effective as the .40 or .45 caliber pistols. Of course it isn’t, because it cannot be. Physics cannot be changed. However, the balance of power and controllability is ideal for most shooters.

Control

The 9mm is easy to control in a handgun of 20 ounces or more. In service-size handguns, such as the Glock 19, the cartridge is downright docile. In a steel-frame pistol such as the Browning Hi Power or CZ 75, the 9mm offers brilliantly rapid recoil recovery. The 9mm is easily controlled in the larger pistols and never becomes a bear even in sub compact pistols.

Upset Gorilla Ammunition bullet showing petals

Expansion of the modern Gorilla Ammunition all copper bullet.

Those planning to later move on to heavier calibers should begin with the 9mm Luger cartridge and move on after they have mastered the 9mm.

I have seen a number of students come to my classes with a handgun that recoils too much. Most often these handguns were compact .40s. A new student will become discouraged or develop a bad flinch that is difficult to train away. The single most important component of combat marksmanship is shot placement Therefore, we can reasonably deduce that the typical beginning shooter is well served with the 9mm.

If you insist on the larger calibers, then you should learn to use a full-size steel-frame .45 or a Glock 22 when choosing the .40 caliber cartridge. If the pistol is too heavy, you will not wear it. If it kicks too much you will not practice with it.

Expanded Speer Gold Dot 124-grain +P Short Barrel bullet

The Speer Gold Dot 124-grain +P Short Barrel load not only expands well accuracy is excellent.

Economy

It isn’t unusual to see special deals on the 9mm Luger cartridge. FMJ loads are commonly available at good prices. Just check the ammo section of Cheaperthandirt.com. At sale prices, 9mm FMJ is often half the price of comparable .40 and .45 caliber ammunition. Even premium defensive ammunition is less than the larger calibers. On average, recent searches indicate that 9mm Luger ammunition may be had in a 500-round quantity for the average price of 350 comparable .45 ACP cartridges. This means more practice. Yet, it is the larger caliber than demands more practice ammunition to master! Use the logic ladder.

The Handguns

Some of the finest handguns in the world are chambered for the 9mm Luger. These include the SIG P226, Beretta 92, HK VP9, and Glock 19. They are famously reliable and accurate. Even inexpensive 9mm pistols such as the Canik T100 will get the job done, simply with a little less style.

Wound Ballistics

This is the big question. Despite some pretty strange statements and non-standard science, the 9mm cannot produce a wound equal to the .45 ACP—given similar bullet technology. All you need is water or ballistic gelatin to test penetration and expansion. Or, you could simply consult the results posted by the major makers.

Bob Campbell shooting from the retention position

Firing from the retention position, muzzle flip is limited.

A loading with good quality control and cartridge integrity is the first choice. Every maker doesn’t have the same quality control, primer seal and case mouth seal, and bullet technology. The loading must maintain the balance of expansion and penetration. This means adequate penetration must not be compromised. The 9mm has enough energy to maintain high-velocity penetration and expansion.

No, the 9mm isn’t my choice for defense against a pack of feral dogs or a bear, but for most personal defense situations the 9mm has the necessary power with proper loads to get the job done. And the best loads mean a lot! The 9mm FMJ loads we use for practice are very poor defensive loads. However, by comparison, the .45 ACP 230-grain FMJ is a proven military and defense loading. That being said, few of us deploy a FMJ load if we have a choice. (I speak from personal experience and research including police and military after action reports, not secret sources and junk science.)

As an example, Hornady recently introduced a 124-grain XTP +P load in the American Gunner line. This loading is affordable and demonstrates excellent performance in my personal testing. Winchester offers a 124-grain PDX in 124-grain +P that offers excellent wound ballistics. Speer offers a 124-grain Gold Dot +P load with a bullet especially designed to expand at reduced velocity when fired in a short barrel handgun.

Brittany Caton with a Glock 9mm handgun in a Tiffany blue Kydex holster

Instructor Brittany Caton trusts here Glock 19 9mm. With careful load selection, the 9mm is a great defensive caliber.

If you prefer not to use a +P loading, there are non +P loads that offer good performance. The Hornady 124-grain XTP is among these. The Winchester Silvertip has been around for decades—although the newest version is considerably improved over the original. SIG Sauer Elite offers a V Crown JHP with excellent performance. The Federal Cartridge Company 124-grain HST is a fine choice, and Federal has recently introduced a low recoil 150-grain HST 9mm with surprising performance. These loads offer good performance, are readily available, and exhibit excellent quality control. The 9mm is a good choice for personal defense given a reliable handgun and intelligent ammunition choice. Choose well and shoot straight.

Ammunition Performance

Ruger SR1911 9mm with 4.25-inch Barrel

Load

Velocity Penetration in Water Expansion
Hornady 124-grain XTP 1090 fps 16 inches .54
Hornady 124-grain XTP +P 1180 fps 17 inches .66
Winchester 115-grain Silvertip 1150 fps 11 inches .64
Winchester 124-grain PDX +P 1190 fps 16 inches .65
Gorilla Ammunition 135-grain 960 fps 18 inches .70
SIG Sauer Elite 124-grain V Crown 1165 fps 18 inches .66
Speer Gold Dot 124-grain +P Short Barrel 1201 fps 15 inches .68
Federal 124-grain HST 1155 fps 18 inches .72

Power versus accuracy. Do you prefer the 9mm or another caliber? Are you willing to trust your life to the 9mm? Share your answers and preferred cartridge for self defense 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 (55)

  • Joe D

    |

    I believe the 9mm is a great all around defensive caliber. Years back I was a die hard .45 carrier/fan. I felt the 9mm was anemic and the .45 (or even .40) just had to have more “stopping power” because it was a bigger bullet with more energy. When I started to learn about real world ballistics though on the job, and what bullets do in real life shootings I changed my opinion greatly. The fact is all service calibers 9, 40, 45, .38/357 are subpar for stopping man sized threats. If you do not get a good CNS hit any caliber is going to fail, and the actual damage caused by all of the service calibers in autopsy is nearly identical. For this reason I have learned that 9mm is an excellent choice because A) you get more rounds in a given firearm meaning more chances for a well placed threat stopping shot, B) it is generally easier to place accurate shots under stress/duress with a 9mm than with a larger Bore handgun and finally 9mm is one of the cheapest rounds to shoot allowing even someone on a budget to practice more, giving a greater probability of putting a well placed shot on target. There is nothing wrong with carrying a .45 or other large Bore, however when modern ammo is used there is NO advantage to carrying a .45 over a 9mm as far as “stopping power” so for me personally I chose the 9mm now as it does offer the advantage of more rounds in a magazine and faster follow up shots. I shoot my 45s well, but I can put an entire 17 round Mag from my Glock 19 into a few inch group at 10 yard defensive distances literally as fast as I can pull the trigger. When I do this with my Glock 30 or my 1911s, the groups open up to about the size of a paper plate shooting at the same speed, and I only have half the round count before I am out of the fight to reload.

    Reply

    • Blkojo

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      Good points on the Model 30 vs. the Model 19. Exactly the reasons why I sold my Gen 3 Model 30 last month, after having it for 18 years, and got a new Gen 4 Model 19.

      Reply

  • John Grimes

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    I agree. I have a SIG P-250 subc and have fired 2000+ through it, all kinds of factory-made ammo, without a single hitch. You pay a lot for the SIG brand, but my experience tells me there is a good reason behind that high price tag.

    Reply

    • Dragon

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      I certainly agree with you, John, as to the quality of SIG Sauer firearms. My introduction to SIG came with the purchase of a P228 over 25 years ago, and I have been methodically adding SIG Sauer pistols and long arms to my collection ever since. While most of my SIGs are in 9x19mm, I also have a few in .357SIG, 40S&W, and .45ACP…..as well as 5.56x45mm.

      My SIGs eat everything I feed them, and they always perform to my satisfaction. The SIG Sauer mantra is certainly well deserved…..”SIG, When It Counts”

      Reply

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