Ammunition

The Big Three Handgun Cartridges

Federal 230-grain Hydra-Shok cartridges with a semi-automatic pistol slide

There are many handgun cartridges — probably many more than we need. Some are not as popular as they once were, and others have no place with modern shooters. The .25 ACP and .32 ACP are pretty much done with for serious use. The .32 H&R Magnum isn’t an impressive loading and has lost its shine — especially with shooters who have chronographs.

In this report, I am covering the big three defensive calibers, the most useful, and the ones I use and deploy most often. There are others, but in my opinion, they are not as useful or versatile. Many handgun cartridges are not enough for personal defense.

Bob Campbell wearing a Hawaiian shirt shooting the Beretta 92 9mm pistol
A full-size 9mm such as the Beretta 92 is easily controlled with the proper technique. That is three spent cartridge cases in the air.

The .38 Special and 9mm Luger are realistic minimums. The balance of recoil and effectiveness must exist. A person with plenty of practice time and dedication may master the .357 Magnum or 10mm cartridges. However, for most of us most of the time, a standard caliber makes more sense. Let’s look at the big three and the pros and cons of each.

.38 Special

The .38 Special is a realistic minimum for personal defense. The .38 was a popular police caliber for many years because it is the most powerful cartridge an occasional shooter is likely to master. With qualifications held once or twice a year, the .38 in a medium-frame revolver was a reasonable choice.

A medium-frame revolver such as the Military and Police fixed sight revolver, or a .357 Magnum loaded with .38s, is a controllable handgun. The .38 Special has the advantage of being a very accurate cartridge, in the right revolver. A quality four-inch barrel revolver is an accurate, reliable, and useful home defense handgun.

The majority of .38 Special revolvers in use in concealed carry are small-frame, snub nose revolvers. These handguns are often five-shot revolvers. There are also small six-shot revolvers such as the Colt Cobra and Taurus 856.

The revolver is not only a viable defensive tool but a very popular one. The problem with a small-bore cartridge is wound ballistics. Shot placement means the most. Old school loads with round nose lead bullets earned a reputation for poor effect.

.38 Special cartridge next to a an upset .38 Spl. bullet
This is a .38 Special loading using the 125-grain XTP.

Among the most useful loads are those using a lead semi-wadcutter, hollow point bullet. This load expands even at a modest 800 fps in snub-nose revolvers. It is even more effective when a full powder burn is achieved in a four-inch barrel. The 110 to 125-grain jacketed hollow point may also exhibit good wound potential.

Jacketed loads have come a long way. The Remington Golden Saber and Hornady Critical Defense loads are good choices. The snub-nose .38 has given millions a measure of comfort carried in a holster on the hip, ankle, in the pocket, or beside the bed or under a pillow in the home. The .38 is easily handled with a minimum of practice and makes a great deal of sense for many shooters.

9mm Luger

Ballistically, the 9mm Luger is a much more modern and efficient cartridge than the .38 Special. A few years make a great deal of difference in emerging technology. The .38 was designed in the black powder age and introduced in 1899. A few years later, the 9mm was introduced with a jacketed bullet and a small case using smokeless powder.

Hornady Critical Defense bullet, left - sectioned bullet middle, and upset bullet right
Modern improvements in bullet technology have made the 9mm a more formidable caliber. This is the Hornady Critical Defense.

The 9mm operates at relatively high pressure. It isn’t a problem to jolt a 115-grain bullet at 1,200 fps in a full-size pistol or 1,180 fps with the 124-grain bullet. There are also 135 to 147-grain bullets. For most of us, the lighter bullets make sense, while some loads such as the Federal 147-grain HST offer impressive performance.

The 9mm offers some choice in the balance of expansion and penetration. Some loads expand rapidly others have greater penetration and more modest expansion. The 9mm is controllable in full-size pistols such as the Glock 17 and may be downright docile in many other handguns.

While +P loads up the ante, those are best reserved for steel frame handguns and experienced shooters. Some of the finest handguns in the world, including the SIG P226 and Beretta 92, are chambered in this caliber.

Winchester USA ready 124-grain 9mm cartridge and upset bullet
This is the Winchester USA ready 124-grain 9mm. A new development, this load has given excellent performance in critical testing.

Compact 9mm pistols that offer a good level of protection are much flatter than a revolver and carry twice as many cartridges. A modern subcompact, such as the SIG P365, offers a good balance of control and concealment.

The 9mm was once widely available and affordable for practice. Availability is much better today, and while we will never see pre-pandemic prices, they are coming down. Compared to other handgun cartridges, the 9mm is less expensive than most. That the 9mm has seen mixed results in personal defense is an understatement.

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Be careful with load selection. That said, we have excellent choices. The Federal HST, Hornady Critical Defense, Remington Golden Saber, and Winchester Silvertip are highly developed loads well worth your hard-earned money.

The 9mm is our most widely distributed defense cartridge. It deserves its claim to fame. And of course, we have some of the finest pistols in the world chambered in 9mm.

A quality 9mm handgun may hold up to 19 rounds in the full-size versions. A subcompact may hold 12 rounds. This means a lot to some of us. While I don’t think I will need 19 rounds this side of Ukraine, five or six rounds may be cutting it short. The 9mm combination has a lot going for it.

.45 ACP

I have often pointed out, in my defense and shooting classes, that a man is about the size of an average deer and about as difficult to put down. Animals are not susceptible to shock and do not know they have been shot, but the comparison is valid. When first developed, part of the .45’s criteria was to be effective against enemy war horses and jaguars as well.

.45 ACP Hornady XTP bullet in different stages of upset
The .45 has tremendous potential. The Hornady XTP expands at velocity as low as 780 fps and performs better at higher velocity but never fragments.

The .45 ACP has been subject to a great deal of revisionist history. The .45 ACP offers superior wound ballistics compared to small-bore cartridges. The combination of a big bore cartridge and a semi-automatic pistol makes for a very good defensive firearm. The .45 ACP is very accurate in the right handgun.

Operating pressure is low, and most loads offer modest muzzle signature — usually just a warm glow. The .45 ACP is the only cartridge discussed that may be effective without an expanding bullet. Standard 230-grain jacketed loads have proven effective in many battles.

The .45 ACP isn’t for everyone. The .45 ACP is at its best — control and reliability — in a handgun around 30 ounces. The 40-ounce Government Model is a model of the balance of control. Modern ammunition increases the .45’s wound potential considerably.

.45 ACP Hornady XTP bullet in different stages of upset
The .45 has tremendous potential. The Hornady XTP expands at velocity as low as 780 fps and performs better at higher velocity but never fragments.

The Hornady Critical Defense is a favorited. The Hornady 200-grain XTP, also loaded by Fiocchi, has set a high bar for accuracy potential. Federal’s Hydra-Shok is a proven loading, often exhibiting high accuracy potential.

Recoil control demands extensive training and regular practice. The person mastering the .45 ACP is well-armed. There are tradeoffs — the cartridges cost more than the 9mm. While there are high-capacity .45 pistols, most fit my hand like a 2×4 piece of lumber. I would much rather have eight rounds, that I can control and hit with than be weighed down with a boat anchor that is difficult to shoot well. In the end, understand the commitment.

Summary: Handgun Cartridges

These are my picks for the top handgun cartridges. There are others. As an example, my primary mentor as a young person had three favorites and little use for other handgun cartridges. He favored the .22 for practice, the .44 Magnum for game, and the .45 ACP for ‘the bad guys.’ Just the same, the one time (I am aware of) he fired a handgun to save his life, it was with a .38 Special revolver that never left his right rear pocket.

Bob Campbell shooting a SIG Sauer P229 9mm handgun showing the minimal recoil as the bullet exits the muzzle
The author is firing a SIG P229 9mm. Note the little-to-no muzzle flip as the bullet exits the barrel.

Another experienced friend favors the .357 SIG. There are many choices. If you have the time and funds — both precious commodities — there are several good choices. My big three are well thought out, widely available, and in use for more than 100 years. That means something, and the reason they are an important part of my working battery.

.38 Spl., 9mm, and .45 ACP are certainly great choices when it comes to self-defense — perhaps that is only because they are the most popular. What do you think are the big three handgun cartridges and why? Do you disagree with the author? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • Smith and Wesson stainless-steel shrouded-hammer revolver
  • Taurus 856 .38 Special six-shot revolver
  • bob Campbell at an outdoor range shooting a snub-nosed .38 caliber revolver
  • Bob Campbell shooting a SIG Sauer P229 9mm handgun showing the minimal recoil as the bullet exits the muzzle
  • Bob Campbell wearing a Hawaiian shirt shooting the Beretta 92 9mm pistol
  • Hornady Critical Defense bullet, left - sectioned bullet middle, and upset bullet right
  • Winchester USA ready 124-grain 9mm cartridge and upset bullet
  • The Taurus 856 is a formidable revolver with VZ grips, a six-shot cylinder, three-inch barrel, and a tritium front sight.
  • .38 Special cartridge next to a an upset .38 Spl. bullet
  • Dan Wesson 1911 .45 ACP handgun with hammer cocked and safety engaged
  • Federal 230-grain Hydra-Shok cartridges with a semi-automatic pistol slide
  • Illustration of the 9mm Hornady Critical Defense cartridge with a 25 percent cut out to show the internals
  • man shooting a 9mm pistol with a red dot sight
  • .45 ACP Hornady XTP bullet in different stages of upset
  • L to R: .38 Special, 9mm, and .45 ACP cartridges

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (28)

  1. Great article, thank you. I am 86 y.o. and considerably slowed by wide spread arthritis and other health issues not uncommon in used and well worn older folks. Consequently, I have had to adjust my choice of firearms and ammo to enable continued and reliable use of my firearms, particularly handguns. Recoil management,manual of arms handling (racking/loading/and maintenance – pistols and revolvers) reasonable range time required judicious and prudent adjustments to remain competent, effective, and safe. Consequently I have had to steadily downsize selected ammo and handguns (shotguns and rifles too) over past years: ammo 380, 32, 32SML, 25, 22mag, 22LR, 20 ga, 410bore.

  2. Great piece on the “big three,” Personally the 44 special in a revolver designed for 44 special loads has been my own personal carry gun in a three inch barrel for many years. The Charter Arms Bull Dog with a messaged action is a huge value for the money and in my view belongs in the “big three” as a replacement for the 38 Special/357.

  3. I am not a fan of .38 Special. Years ago, when it seemed more acceptable, I could live with people I cared about using it for self-defense. But, after more than 30 years of working in ER and seeing GSW’s that easily numbering into the high three digits, if not four, in just about every caliber that have been made in the last 100 years, I looked at the cases where different calibers showed their lack of efficacy. That is a nice way of saying that they did not do the job as well as was supposed to be or expected to be. I saw more than one person who was shot in the forehead with a .38 Special and the slug did not penetrate the person’s skull. They looked like hell and we thought they should be dead, just by looking at them, but other than having an hellacious headache, for which we could not give them pain medicine as that would have masked symptoms of a head injury, they did fine. I have seen too many alleged humans shot with a .38 that were not really deterred from their suspect activity.

    Now, as I have said before, I am a fan of the .45 ACP as that was the caliber of my duty weapon back 50 or so years when I was overseas playing with a bunch of guys who wore funny green clothes and played with guns, grenades, and other high explosives. We were all volunteers and many of them were like me in that we all probably would have been voted most likely to run with scissors. I am now and will be a fan of .45 until I can no longer play with guns. Most likely, I will be dead then.

    That being said, I would like to compare the ballistic numbers of the .38 Special and 9 mm. To come as close as possible to comparing apples to apples, I chose Hornady Ammo and selected bullet weights as close as possible. All of these numbers were tallied in guns with 4″ barrels. In 38, Hornady has the 110 gr FTX Critical Defense. The bore is .357. MV is 1010 fps and ME is 249 ft/lbs. At 50 yards those numbers are 940 and 216, respectively. At 100 yards, the numbers are 883 and 191. The closest weight in 9 mm is the 115 gr FTX Critical Defense. The bore of 9 mm is .355 for that round. MV is 1135 and ME is 332 ft/lbs. At 50 yards the numbers are 1030 and 271. 100 yards will get you numbers of 954 and 232 ft/lbs. Notice that 9 mm has energy numbers at 50 yards that are just under what the .38 has at muzzle and a velocity that is higher than the .38 at muzzle.

    The disparity becomes more pronounced when the bullets reach the 120 grain range. The 38 Sp. 125 gr XTP ® American Gunner® has a MV of 900 fps and ME of 225. 50 yard numbers are 856 and 203, respectively. 100 yards show 817 and 185. The 124 gr XTP® Hornady BLACK® shows MV of 1110 and ME of 339. At 50 yards the numbers fall to 1027 and 290. At 100 yards, the numbers read 965 and 257. Notice that the 9 mm has more energy at 100 yards than the .38 does at muzzle.

    LAPD noticed several decades ago, (I believe it was in the late 60’s or early 70’s) that the .38 was not doing the job. They did extensive testing and found that a high number of police carried .38’s could not penetrate most windshields when they went to an auto salvage yard. It was at that point that they decided to go with .357 for most of their officers.

    I don’t usually take issue with the author but the one thing that he said about shot placement is disturbing to me. It is disturbing because until one has been in the situation of drawing a weapon to actually shoot at another human being, you cannot know what happens to the newly initiated shooter. It is not an initiation that anyone should covet. It is part of the human condition that when major stressors impinge themselves on us, that human physiology takes over, and we cannot control how we respond that first time. Did I mention I played with guys who played with guns, grenades, and other high explosives? I am not talking out my hat here.

    The first time you draw a weapon to shoot at another person, the sympathetic nervous takes over and dumps adrenaline into your bloodstream. Some of the things that happen to you when this is taking place are things like developing tunnel vision, meaning you see things down at the end of that tunnel and NOT clearly. Your heart rate picks up, your hands rise and fall as you try to find your target in the sights that you can no longer see. In fact, that first time, you probably never will see those d@%N3d things. You may find that you are not breathing and have to quit holding your breath so you won’t pass out. And then there is the gut check. When this is all over, you may find yourself throwing your guts up or having to clean up your clothes because somebody left a load in there and it don’t smell good and it’s running down… never mind.

    Now these are things you cannot control. That first time, everything hits the fan. Shot placement? It’s hard to hit the target when you cannot even see the stinkin’ sights. And having a gun that probably won’t be effective anyway, that can’t be good.

    From the standpoint of this old grizzled veteran, 9 mm is the bare minimum for self-defense, if you expect to arrive alive at your intended destination after the smoke raised by this little dustup settles.

  4. I like to carry my little SP101 in .357 – unquestionable ability to stop a threat, though only 5 round capacity.

    In the truck I normally have a XDM .45 on hand, 13 + 1 “ashtrays” going downrange is always formidable.

  5. I suggest also the 40 caliber as a potent handgun cartridge over the 38 special…but that is just my two cents.

  6. Excellent article, and Mr. Campbell is right on the money in his choices. I’ve used and carried all three since 1965, both as a Marine Rifleman and Border Patrol Agent. From 1965 to 1969, which included two tours “in Country”, I was not issued a pistol but never had a problem obtaining one for various reasons. My first love in handguns has always been the 191l. In the Border Patrol my first issued revolver was a Colt “Border Patrol” “I” frame with a bull barrel in .38 Special. I liked it and wish I could have kept it as a personal weapon, but did purchase a S&W Model 19 which we carried while in uniform. For plain clothes work most carried the Colt 1911. We were eventually issued the Colt “Trooper Mark III” and I carried that until transferring from Arizona to Texas. Over the years I’ve carried and used different calibers including .41 Magnum, which was good for Highway work but a bit much otherwise. In 1971 an off duty encounter outside of Douglas, AZ led me to give the .38 Super a try. It was one of Colt’s recently introduced “Combat Commander” models. That pistol was eventually sold to a fellow Agent, but I was sold on the cartridge. Back then the .38 ACP was easier to find and good for practice, but the “Super” was and is serious business. The only problem now is availability. Since it’s a +P load it’s best in a full size steel frame Government Model, but Federal loads a 115 grain hollow point which works well in the Lightweight Commander. Since 1971 I’ve carried 1911’s in .38 Super as a personal preference. I’ve still used others, including .357 Mag. and .40 S&W and honestly, in a pinch I’ll take whatever is available including .32 ACP. But if I had to settle on just one (which hopefully will never happen) it would be John Browning’s first offering, but in the +P load.

  7. Years ago, the standard LEO pistol was normally the S&W model 10 – .38 spl. Some departments use .357 revolvers, but still only allowed .38/158 gr. round nose (Police) loads. In the 80’s and 90’s, the switch was made to Autos, with larger and larger magazines. Today, the actual bullet is the critical factor, as modern 9mm bullets can perform so much better than even 15 – 20 years ago. So – What pistol can you handle well, i.e., keep at least 5 rounds in a 4″ group, at 10 yards or greater. A center mass hit with any of these cartridges using modern bullets would be deter all but a seriously doped up felon. Even Col. Cooper realized that any pistol round can be lethal, if the bullet reached a critical organ. But even with a center mass hit, that felon may live long enough to shoot back. The good Col. Cooper’s answer was two shots to center mass, count ONE & TWO, then shoot between the eyes. Got that info directly from Col. Cooper, and later when he started GUNSITE, that was one of his main points of self defense shooting.

  8. Have shot 9mm for 30 years in matches. Like it and reload it but in the past 5 years I have been carrying 10mm. I like it and is can control in Glock 20 and 29. 45 acp is a standard and like and shoot it in matches. But I just can’t get used to carrying cocked and locked with one in the tube. So I carry it sometimes in a Glock 30. But really like the 10mm.

  9. My big three are the 357 Mag, 45 ACP and 40 S&W. Anything that I carry has to maximize my ability to successfully deal with a deadly threat. Each of these has their role. I am horseback almost every day and that opens up risk to 4 legged, cougar and bear, as well as two legged threats. I carry a Dan Wesson 715 357 Mag loaded with 125 gr JHP in a Bianchi holster on a custom 20 loop cartridge belt. Nothing is more comfortable horseback than a classic cowboy rig. Open carry is an STI Spartan 45 ACP with 230 gr Golden Sabers. I don’t open carry often but I also don’t believe in safe queens. It’s a very accurate and sweet piece. EDC is a subcompact XD in 40 S&W loaded with 180 gr Golden Sabers in a Galco Tuk-N-GO IWB holster. I haven’t found a subcompact 45 that I can handle accurately with rapid follow up shots so the 40, also an excellent round, is a bit of a compromise. I have no issue emptying ten 40s from the XD rapidly and accurately. I’m not a 9mm fan as it’s only effective with careful bullet selection.

  10. Hey Bob, I have to agree with you. Although I don’t own the .38 special, I have shot one that is owned by a friend. I have several variations of pistols in 9mm and .45 that I trust my life and my family’s safety to. My favorite has to be a 1911. Fairly easy to conceal, and with good shot placement, 8 rounds should be plenty. A full magazine in the pocket is good to have just in case.

  11. I was confused by the title. I thought it meant BIG calibers. So I guess this was about the most often used? Comparing ballistics is partially meaningless without knowing what they will be used for. For example, Im hooked on the .44 Special for in home defense.Big slug, not the kick of the .44 mag, small gun (Taurus etc)

  12. I agree with the author with these three personally if i left one out it would be the nine. Started my LE career in 1989 carrying S&W model 10 38 special +p ballistically similar to 9mm six shots instead of 15. In 91 transitioned too the 9mm and carrying 45 round instead of 18 created a new problem that I still noticed when I retired in 2015 which is accuracy through volume. Young cops seamed to lose sight of the fact that every shot discharged must be accounted for whether it impacts a bad guy or the neighbors house. During the transition to 9mm an older cop told me if he can’t stop them with six he needed to switch to his shotgun not reload. So my personal choices are S&W model10 4 inch most accurate handgun I have owned and 1911 commander in 45

  13. Bob-
    A fine opinion piece on hand guns if there ever was one. I’m a 70 yrs young life long shooter and enthusiast- a CCW for 40 years.
    I decided that the.45 ACP was, is and will always be king of the hill for defense. I’ve built and customized many- I carry a customized Colt officers, and my svelte figure keeps it from printing- Good job

  14. Another good article from you Bob.

    While I’m not a fan of the 38 special nor the 9mm Luger, I do have a use for them.

    I carry a Kimber Micro 9 primarily for its ease of concealment under clothing like T shirts. I feel there is no need to scare everyone around me as they wonder if I’m the next nutty shooter about to turn loose on the public.

    Trying to carry a full sized, large frame handgun under clothing that can not possibly conceal it, does no good for myself or the people I’m around.

    As to the 38 special in a revolver, I like to keep a shot shell at the ready. This is not only good for snakes that crawl upon the ground, but I think better for my wife to use as a self defense first shot.

    I’m not sure that my wife, nor others that don’t wish to practice shooting handguns enough to become proficient with them, confronted by a attacker, no matter the caliber or type of handgun while in a state of fear
    could hit the attacker where needed to stop the attack.

    So a shot shell fired first, would have a better chance of seriously hurting a assailant, then followed up with some 125 grain hollow points for if nothing else to encourage the would be bad guy to retreat.

    My choice of the three calibers you have based your article upon is the 45 acp, loaded with 200 xtp hollow points. The old sniper creed, “ One shot, one kill”, comes to mind here.

    I like you, I assume have hunted whitetail deer with a 45 caliber handgun. There is no real comparison to the trauma of a 45 caliber xtp round in flesh to that of a similar 9mm round.

    I know that those that love the 9mm are gritting their teeth about now, there is a reason your not legally able to hunt with a 9mm pistol, but are with a 45 ACP, state wildlife agency’s have determined that the 9mm is not capable of humanly dispatching a whitetail deer or black bear. That noted should give anyone some small amount of pause to the ideal that the 9mm is the holly grail of choice in a self defense caliber.

    I realize if anyone were to drag up the many other calibers available we could argue forever without some limits placed on the handguns or calibers that could be considered. Case in point would be the 44 magnum, but it’s a bit to large for most people to carry concealed, but a truly lethal self defense caliber.

    Just in case anyone is wondering my other caliber choices, I believe better that the 9mm is the 38 Super, the 40 SW and the 10 mm along with the 45 ACP.

    In reality the best advice I could give is based on what I once heard somewheres “ The best caliber is the one you got with you”, I can’t argue with that everything else is moot.

  15. I absolutely agree with the author. Am partial to both the .38 Sp.+P & .45 ACP.
    Much prefer the .45 ACP.

  16. As a .45 guy, I agree with all you said. Can’t beat a 38 for newbies & ladies in a good revolver, or to stick in your cargo shorts. I carry the M60 in 357 but have LWs in 38. Nines are a good caliber now with the good bullets & loads offered. The .45 is “best” for me, since I have been shooting it since 1960 & used it in war & know it’s abilities. I do find that the compact 45s, like the Kimber Ultra, Colt Officer are not at all difficult to shoot accurately with full pop loads & are controllable. Practice makes it work. Also, the M60 is fairly easy to shoot PD 357s fast & accurate, but don’t want to run too many FP thru it with it’s small frame.

  17. Best handgun advice I ever read. Too many new shooters want what they see in the movies. I always recommend 38 revolvers for beginners wanting a weapon for self defense. You can be half asleep and operate it. You can be really scared and operate it. Practice, practice, practice. You must be able to hit your target. Small 38s are lightweight and easy to carry. A gun too heavy or too big will often not be with you when you need it. You must have the gun with you (always) for it to be able to save your life.
    I love 45 acp and 44 magnum, but I carry and have saved my life with a 38 special.

  18. I have all three I enjoy all three finally got a handle on my 38 model 640 change to Wilson combat tune up spring kit excellent kit made my 38 a new gun trigger is very smooth now my beretta 9 model 92 fs what can you say it’s great and my Springfield 1911 in a 45 heavy gun so recoil is manageable three great guns

  19. I could not be more in agreement with your choice of ammunition. My weekday carry is a 38 snub (laser grips)with Hornady FTX and my Sunday carry as a Safety Team member of my church is a 9mm (red dot) with Hornady FTX. However, my favorite is the 45 and I continue to search for a combination that does not print. My 85 year old eyes necessitate a red dot or laser sight which does add to the mass somewhat.
    I have always felt the 45 is unfairly criticized for recoil. In my experience the 45 has more of a “push” whereas the 357, 9mm and even the lowly 380 have a “snap” felt in the wrist.
    Appreciate your articles.

  20. My EDC is the .45 ACP in a Khar CW. I can shoot it well, and the magazine is fed with Cor-Bon ammo. Both the one collision crippled deer, and the one hunter wounded deer I finished off with it went down “right there”, so I know it will have sufficient impact in a defensive capacity. Though I own and shoot a Beretta 92 in 9mm, I have that reserved for scenarios where capacity and ammo availability are more a factor (deep woods trips, SHTF), so it will never be my EDC, though I have a lot of confidence in it. My Keltec PF9 rounds out my uses of carry, for deep concealment. Those are the only situations that I have an application for in my environment, but those pretty much cover all of the practical, the .45 and the 9mm.

  21. I agree with your assessment of the top 3 with one exception. The 25 and 32 are no longer viable self-defense rounds, and the 32 H&R mag is unimpressive. The 327 Federal Mag is however very viable and impressive in the right revolver as a self-defense round for those who are very recoil sensitive.

  22. Sorry I believe a 12 gauge pump with a pistol grip is the best “home” defense weapon. No worry about over penetration and it is hard to miss. Anyone that is in front of a 12 gauge is in a very bad place.

  23. Great article , I have a S&W stainless snub nose 38 special 5 shot revolver that I really like. It’s small, easy to carry. I mostly keep it the bathroom within reach of the tub/shower and John. I put semi wad hollow points in it. I guess the only draw back is it won’t handle P+ ammo. What surprised me the most was the accuracy of this snubby at around 25 feet. The fact that it’s stainless means it can withstand a somewhat humid environment of the bathroom. But I am curious what others think, even though it wasn’t mentioned in this article of the effectiveness of 22 mag hollow points for self defense.

  24. Good post, really well-stated and backed up. But this was always going to be a contended topic, so here goes! I think the .380 is mostly obsolete in modern firearms. I understand the shootabilty it offers and the history but to call it one of the big 3 today seems misplaced. The author even mentioned that it was born in the black powder era.

    It’s pretty simple really. If you want to know what the big three cartridges are just follow the money, and by that I mean follow what arms makers are making today.

    To me, the big three have just slid up the caliber scale from .380 as arms makers have perfected the recoil dynamics and ergonomics to handle the power of bigger loads – thanks to modern engineering technology and materials. We live in the golden age of firearms, there are more quality options out there than ever before, and you can find something for everybody.

    With all that being said, my big three are 9mm, .40, and .45, and I would caveat that even the .45 is on the edge of obsolescence today.

    The 9mm needs no more explanation that the author didn’t already lay out. Same goes for the 45, aside from the fact that capacity now rules with modern defensive cartridge designs and the .45 is going to be squeezed out most likely by the 10mm

    The .40 is a near perfect hybrid of speed and heavyweight ballistics– matching 9mm speed with heavier loads that offer not only superior expansion potential (for defense loads), but also increased capacity compared to .45 loads. Developed from a cut down 10mm, in collaboration with the FBI, the .40 is snappier than a 9mm, and takes some practice to master, but it’s not impossible and there are still more than plenty popular arms makers who support the cartridge in their latest offerings and they have tuned the slide sizes, ergonomics and barrels to maximize the usability of this caliber. Cost is a factor here too but for defensive loads as long as your not wasting them at the range it’s money we’ll spent. FMJ loads for range time are marginally higher than 9mm, but everything is inflated now so this is the new normal. (Thanks Joe!)

  25. Bravo, excellent case for the big three! Curious why the 40 caliber might not make the cut. Is the 40 a thing of the past?

  26. agree pretty much, but I will always chose a 357 mag over a 38 spec, main reason gives you many more options you can shoot 357 mag in it and many loads, and still shot the weak and almost uless 38 spec, the 38 spec you can only shoot weak almost useless 38 spec I have put many rounds out with 38 spec and they shoot plus p but they just will not do the job under powered but the 357 mag will stop about thing you hit, 45 ACP is a fine proven weapon, the 9mm about as worthless and the 38 spec, so for me it is 44 mag loaded with 44 spec (big hole, light recoil ) the 357 mag you do not need to send 15 rounds of 9mm just one round works fine, and then the 45 acp is always a great choice, thanks

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