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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.