Short-Barrel Performance — The .45 ACP and Barrel Length

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, Firearms, Handguns, Range Reports

Cheaper Than Dirt! asked me to work up a report on the differences in .45 ACP ammunition when fired in different barrel lengths. I was already ahead of the game as I have been driven to distraction by the newest GLOCK, the long slide Model 41. I also routinely pack acompact 1911, so the motivation was there and so was the ambition. I always begin an exploration of facts with an open mind and in doing so have learned quite a bit about firearms. I did have several facts on the table, however, that had been qualified by years of testing.

.45 Short Barrel Pistol

The author prefers the 5-inch .45 when possible. The longer sight radius makes precision possible. However, the short guns have their place.

The .45 ACP is a low-pressure cartridge that uses modest charges of fast burning powder. As such, it is not as affected by barrel length as other calibers. The .357 Magnum, as an example, will demonstrate extreme variations in velocity between 2- and 4-inch barrel revolvers. The slow burning powder used in the Magnum often creates a tremendous ball of flame on firing as unburned powder burns outside of the barrel. On the other hand, even when the barrel is as short as 3 inches, the .45 ACP usually produces a full powder burn. Muzzle signature is often a few sparks and little more. Still, there is a proximate loss in velocity in shorter barrels. Whether the loss is significant and whether it impacts wound ballistics was the question. We know that shorter pistols with their short sight radius and shorter grip are inherently more difficult to fire accurately than a long-barrel handgun. That was a different question. Accuracy was not in question, wound ballistics and efficiency are.

All handguns are short-barrel firearms. I think that the conventional sense of short barrel is shorter than standard. A Colt 1911 Government Model uses a 5-inch barrel as standard. The GLOCK 21 is similar. If we are using a Commander .45 we are working with a 4.25-inch barrel. While a rifleman may laugh at handgunners as we agonize over that .75-inch of barrel lost, the fact is in handgun terms the loss of velocity may be significant.

I wished to see just what I was giving up with the short barrel .45 I carry often. Time, hard work and a number of struggles with our protein-fed ex-con criminal class move me to a literary moment. ‘Alas, it is true we have seen better days!’ My back is glad to support a lighter pistol. Today, my threat profile is lower and my mission statement different. My back is not so strong. I still carry a .45, but more often it is a compact. My friend John also carried a short .45, the SIG P250, and had some interest in the equation.

Speer Gold Dot ammunition expansion

The Speer Gold Dot is a particularly good performer in short-barrel handguns. Image courtesy of Speer.

Velocity is a consideration, but so is bullet construction. Bullets are designed for a certain expansion threshold. A bullet designed to open at 1,000 fps isn’t going to open as well at 800 fps. However, if we have a heavy bullet we have greater momentum whether or not we have expansion. As a plus, the spread from the expansion threshold of no expansion to full expansion is much narrower with 230-grain bullets. In my opinion, the heavier bullets are the better choice in short barrel .45s. Conversely, you are able to achieve the greatest advantage with lighter bullets in the long barrel .45s.

When using handloads, I most often use the 230-grain bullet. I most often use faster burning powders such as Bulls Eye and WW 231. It has become a well-known trick in the .45 ACP to use medium, slower burning powders to increase lock time. The pistol stays locked a millisecond longer—at least that is the theory— velocity is kept up and accuracy increased. This is a difficult point to prove or disprove, but my experiments tend to lend this conjecture some validity. However, in the short barrel .45, nothing doing. A slow burning powder simply produced median velocity and excess muzzle flash, with much of the powder burning outside of the barrel—just food for thought for handloaders. Let’s look at the differences in loads when fired in several representative examples of the .45 ACP.

Factory Load Comparison

Cor Bon 160-grain DPX

Handgun Barrel Length Velocity
RIA Compact 3.5 inches 990 fps
SIG P220 4.4 inches 1032 fps
Colt Series 70 5.0 inches 1121 fps

Speer 230-grain Gold Dot

Handgun Barrel Length Velocity
GLOCK M41 5.3 inches 1166 fps
RIA Compact 3.5 inches 770 fps
Colt Commander 4.25 inches 809 fps
Colt 1991A1 5.0 inches 855 fps

185-grain XTP/5.5 Titegroup Handload Comparison

Handgun Barrel Length Velocity
Colt Defender 3.0 inches 867 fps
GLOCK M41 5.3 inches 1011 fps

Next, let’s look at the performance of one of the most popular .45 ACP loads in a short barrel handgun. Speer engineers its 230-grain Gold Dot to give good performance across a range of velocity. After all, the engineers at Speer did not know whether the load would be used in a Government Model or a Defender barrel length. The performance doesn’t seem to leave much to be desired.

Speer Gold Dot Testing

  • Short barrel
  • 770 fps average velocity
Gelatin Test Expansion Penetration
Bare Gelatin .73 inches 14.5 inches
After Penetrating Heavy Cloth .752 inches 14.5 inches
45 Short Barrel with Hornady Ammunition

With proper ammunition selection, a short .45 is both reliable and formidable.

When you get to the bottom line, and considering the differing distances at which you may engage an adversary, the differences in velocity and performance are not that great. The 230-grain .45 offers good penetration and expansion. The shooter must deliver the shot where it will do the most good. A common misconception is that penetration is lost when we fire a load at lower velocity from a short barrel handgun. In the case of the .45 ACP, the opposite is true. As an example, the Hornady 200-grain XTP is recognized as a fine defense load. When fired from a 5-inch barrel, expansion is about .68 and penetration about 16 inches making it an ideal service load. From a short barrel, .45 velocity is lower. Expansion is less with less frontal diameter to push and penetration is usually greater.

An example of a load I have the greatest respect for is the Speer Gold Dot 200-grain +P. This load breaks about 1050 fps from the 5-inch 1911. However, from the 4.4-inch barrel SIG P220, velocity is off nearly 70 fps. The load penetrates about 11 inches and expands to almost 80 caliber from the 5-inch gun. At the lower velocity, penetration is about 12.5 inches and expansion .70—still ideal. The SIG is a full-size pistol with excellent handling qualities so the +P loading is a reasonable choice in this pistol.

The bottom line is this: choose a load that is reliable and burns clean. If recoil is excessive and muzzle signature is anything more than a modest orange glow, consider another choice. Marksmanship is the most important single element of wound ballistics and prior training the single most important factor in surviving a critical incident.

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Share your experiences with .45 ACP and short barrel length in the comment section.

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 (23)

  • Larry

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    Once I received my Conceal Carry Permit, I chose a Glock 36 for my carry. I have it loaded with 185 grain, Remmington Bonded Hollow Points. I have a 5 inch 45 and the Glock 36 is a little shorter, but it has the accuracy of the longer barrel 45′s. I have 2-6 round mags for it and if you hit what you aim at, it leave a very messy spot. The 230 grain round nose has a lot of kick to my glock 36, but the 185 grain is not so bad. I have practiced with the 185 grain so I will know how it handles and what the recoil is like. Besides, I love the night sights on my glock.. I know everyone has a preference to their gun choice, but for shoulder carry my glock 19 fits beautiful and my glock 36 fits nice inside my waist band. If I am going to wear thin pants or a shirt, I like to carry my LC9 with laser max.

    Reply

    • DaveW

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      Larry – I don’t know what your background is, but I agree with the idea that accuracy is far more important than quantity.

      I would like to point out that the “average” shooter, under stress, combined with adrenalin, and any added factors like lighting, will produce missed shots. Few people have the self control to take their time with a shot under those conditions. You’d have the same kind of limitation with a revolver, but changing magazines is faster than having to open the cylinder, dump, reload, close, return to firing. I also keep half a dozen magazines loaded and available: one in the weapon, two in reserve, and three more is my patrol bag where I can resupply as needed.

      Reply

    • Jack

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      One of our quote,” best shots” in the department got into a return fire gun fight and after it was over he / we learned the following. What he had done on the range for accuracy for simply a score for standing still under no stress. Sure, he could shoot a perfect score with a high number of X-ring hits all day long but once it became a real shooting match on the street he failed completely. We carried wheel guns back then and he carried 18 rounds and managed to shoot all of them in hitting buildings and cars a block or so behind where the suspect was shooting at him from. Most of his shots were about 7 to 10 feet high over the head of the suspects location area and later we learned the officer had done all the firing from behind his car door ducked down basically just throwing shots over the window frame. (suspect left the area with no injuries and captured a few days later quietly)
      As one of the senior firearms staff what he learned of himself that night was never passed along and nothing was ever implemented to make changes in our shooting scenarios over the following years. Yes, we managed to go to the semi auto Sig P-220s/45acp sidearm but training never changed except for loading techniques. Adrenalin changes the entire shooting picture on all situations including those of the military nature. Having all the ammunition you can close by and at the ready, (loaded magazines not ammo in their boxes) is definitely a life and death game changer regardless of your shooting score at the range on qual day. Sadly he was a favorite son and made rank up thru Lt. easily so pushing the admin for a change was impossible to get done.

      Reply

    • larry

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      Over the past thirty or so years I have put well over 100,000 rounds down range as well as at least a couple of thousand hunting. I have shot stages of “Running Gun” where I had one mag in the gun and ten (10) magazines on my belt. Pressure and extreme adrenaline is only part of the equation in a move and shoot situation. As acting RO in one competition I DQ’d and expelled a County Sheriff from the competition for safety reasons. When I told him “Range is Clear, Load and Make Ready” he put a magazine in racked a round into the chamber and shot the ground five feet in front of us.
      With my military background and constant practice, no bad guy will ever walk away from a fire fight if I am there and armed.
      I am a Marine Corp. Expert with a M14 and a NRA Certified Expert with a M1A and 45 acp.
      There was an incident in Vegas a few years back…Two officers spent over 60 rounds, some from an
      AR15 in a fire fight with one suspect and succeeded in wounding the suspect with one hit on his left foot.
      With All Due Respect, I can and will defend myself.

      Reply

    • larry

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      OOPS.. sorry for the rant…I thought you were commenting to the other larry

      Reply

  • Nelson

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    These results would be more meaningful if they:
    – compared ammo types fired from the same weapons; and
    – included statistics: the number of each and velocity std. deviation.

    Reply

  • Alex the dog

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    Bob Campbell writes with good actual experience that he shares with civilians. I too, was in l.e. First as a patrolman for 12 years, then as a detective for the next 20. Over those years, our needs changed but the mission was the same–accuracy. Accuracy depended on much range practice, and the right load. There are great ballistic differences from the various mfrs., so we practiced with the same loads we carried every day.

    I used Speer Gold Dot exclusively, and became expert on the range and in combat competition. The point I’m making is this: if you carry a long or short barrel weapon long enough, you will know what it’s shooting characteristics are. If you use the same loads, you will be just as deadly in combat as you are on the range.

    I was just as deadly with a .380 Walther PPK as I was with my .45 Ruger P345. Although with the Ruger, I didn’t have to stop the perp with a head shot.

    Reply

  • William

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    I read with interest how you were concerned using a Glock 21with a 4.25″ barrel and losing that 0.75″.
    I have my CHL and carry a Citadel 1911 Compact, with a 3.5″ barrel.
    I regularly fire a 2″ group at 25 feet, and that is quick fire, not slow fire. That is probably longer range than I would be shooting in a self defense mode.
    “Alex the dog” is right, the key is practice, and lots of it.

    Reply

  • Hank Alvarez

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    I haven’t fired a short barrel version of a 1911 in a 45 ACP that I liked more than the standard 5″ that I have in my Rock Island. With a buffer in the sleeve and a set of Hogue wrap around rubber grips it’s easier and more fun to shoot. A friend with a short colt says you don’t fire most CCW’s that often and I agree because I wouldn’t want to.

    Reply

  • Martha

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    What’s wrong with Smith & Wesson 1911 I never hear about that gun

    Reply

  • TaccoDawg

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    Love my springfield commander, weak or strong hand it shoots good groups. eats whatever I throw into it. Kind a partial to 230 grain hydroshocks.

    Reply

  • larry

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    I started shooting competition with a standard government 1911 and did fairly well. Five years later I found (new at the time) a Springfield V-10 Champion (3&7/8″ barrel) and dramatically raised the bar for my hit percentage. When legal, I have used my V-10 to hunt with and never went home empty handed. Years ago, on a moose hunt, I took a bull from 40yds with 185gr. semi wad cutter, pushed by 5gr. of bullseye..One Shot One Kill. I would not trade that piece for Anything on the market today.

    Reply

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