Consumer Information

Choosing a Handgun Caliber

Gold bodied, copper-topped .32 NAA Cartridge on a white background

I’m going to open up a can of worms on this topic. There is perhaps no more effective way to stir up debate than to bring up the topic of handgun calibers.

Gold bodied, copper-topped .32 NAA Cartridge on a white background
The .32 NAA cartridge is a decent performing round, although isn’t always easy to find on store shelves.

First, let’s dispel a few myths: There is no such thing as a “man stopper” or a handgun caliber that is capable a “one-shot stop.” Compared to their larger rifle caliber brethren, all handgun rounds seem puny and underpowered. That’s primarily because the handgun itself is a compromise between portability and power. The reason military forces don’t equip their soldiers with handguns as a primary weapon is because they’re just not as effective at quickly stopping an attacker as a rifle is.

How does one decide what caliber to get a handgun in? Dave Sevigny said it best when he told us to “just get the biggest caliber you can hit with or the one you’re most comfortable with.”

Why the emphasis on size? Because when it comes to a handgun caliber you need every bit of performance you can get.

Still, there is always the trade-off of size vs. concealability and portability. Few people would recommend carrying a small pocket pistol chambered in .357 Magnum. While such guns exist, they are difficult to shoot well and usually only hold 5 rounds or less.

Neither is a soft shooting .32 ACP caliber pistol with a 20-round capacity necessarily appropriate. A handgun is always a compromise, which is why you should choose based on ergonomics and the firearm’s intended role first (home defense vs. concealed carry) and decide on a caliber second.

Black Bersa Thunder .380 Concealed Carry Pistol, barrel pointed to the left on a white background
The Bersa Thunder .380 Concealed Carry pistol is reliable, soft shooting, and easily to conceal.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Handgun Caliber.

How comfortable is it to shoot in my pistol?

Most pistols are available in a variety of calibers. Once you’ve decided what model pistol you want, try shooting it in the various calibers.

A small handgun such as a GLOCK 26 firing a 9mm may be uncomfortable for some shooters while a larger handgun such as a GLOCK 20 firing a massive 10mm cartridge may be easily tamed in larger hands.

Like Dave said: choose the largest caliber you can comfortably shoot.

Can I afford to practice regularly with this caliber?

Larger caliber ammo is generally more expensive than smaller caliber ammo, so you need to add this cost difference into the equation. If you choose a larger caliber such as .357 Magnum or .45 ACP make sure that you can find ammunition that is inexpensive enough to allow you to practice regularly.

Is it a “standard” caliber?

Some calibers are simply more abundant and easier to find than others. Before you buy that pistol chambered in .45 GAP or 7.62 Tokarev, consider how easy (or difficult) it is to find a box of cartridges in that caliber.

When the ammo shortage hit a few years ago we saw everything dry up, and the unusual calibers disappeared just as fast as the more common 9mm, yet these oddball cartridges were replaced on the shelves much more slowly than the more common calibers.

Terminal Ballistics

When it comes to a handgun, the last thing to look at is the actual performance of the round. Colonel Jeff Cooper once said about the little .25 ACP “If you must carry a .25 ACP caliber pistol, do not load it. For if you load it, you might use it. And if you shoot somebody with it, and they find out about it, they’re likely to be very upset with you.”

While a gun chambered in .25 ACP beats the heck out of not having a gun at all, it’s simply not adequate at stopping a determined attacker. A .22 Long Rifle may meet all of our criteria listed above, being cheap, comfortable, and abundant, yet it too lacks adequate stopping power.

For most handguns .380 ACP should generally be the minimum caliber you choose. It seems like every firearm manufacturer is producing small .380 pocket pistols these days, although if you can comfortably conceal and shoot a larger caliber handgun, bigger is always better.

If it meets the criteria listed above and you can accurately shoot it, choose a pistol chambered in .45 ACP, .40 S&W, or .357 Magnum for a revolver.

Despite what anyone tells you, there is no magic number, no special caliber that reliably stops a determined attacker. Find a pistol that fits you and your needs, whether for concealed carry or home defense, and then get it in the largest caliber you can comfortably shoot.

Don’t worry about ammunition capacity; instead practice and focus on getting accurate shots.

What is your favorite handgun and caliber? What criteria did you use when choosing it? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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 decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (24)

    1. I keep bumping into videos and articles titled something like, ÔÇ£End of the 9mm, 40cal. and 45ACP DebateÔÇØ. The majority of arguments and presented data rely on new projectile design, propellent (powder) formulations and manufacturing techniques that ÔÇÿÔǪmake new 9mm ammunition the ballistic equivalent of the 45ACPÔÇÖ. They go on to show gelatin blocks with wound channels, chronograph measurements with energy calculations and shot timer records for multiple shots on target as proof of their contention(s).
      Perhaps the most common argument used against the 45, is its  higher degree of difficulty to control repeated rounds on target rapidly. Now, the newest crop of 9mm uses projectile weights ranging from the standard 147 grain full metal jacketed to the high pressure/high velocity/low recoil light projectile 115 grain Critical Defense type loads which achieves these wunderkind results.
      My problem with this rational is the automatic factoring in of the NEED for multiple hits on a target to stop a threat. The entire idea, in fact the proven ability of using the 45 in combat, was to disable or remove an opponents ability to conduct operations against the good guywith one shot. Why, pray tell, are we so focused on hurling vast quantities of lead downrange all the while knowing multiple hits will be required to stop a potential threat? I just read a handgun review wherein the manufacturer supplies in the package not one but two 24 round magazines! Remember, we are not talking about a machine pistol or carbine but a handgun. What citizen goes armed for combat against a regiment of assailants? My natural inclination would be to think that if I needed all that firepower to defeat two or even three assailants, I need more range time practicing and/or I need a more effective caliber handgun. To carry the 24 round magazine concept to its conclusion: Why not have a 100 round .22 caliber handgun that doesnt recoil too badly?
      One topic never discussed in these diatribes against the 40 and 45 is the obvious point that if the new technologies and processes benefit the 9mm so much, it would seem a logical conclusion those same advancements would benefit the ÔÇ£ancientÔÇØ and ÔÇ£now decrepitÔÇØ 45ACP even more so. Yes, manufacturers have applied all their technical powers to the venerable 45 and have once again made the 45ACP the standard by which all others are judged, that much better.
      All this caliber question requires is the application of common sense. If a person goes into a gunfight carrying a caliber he or she knows will require multiple hits, why consider this caliber as a choice for defense of life? Carrying a handgun on a daily basis is decidedly NOT convenient. If one is going to subject onesÔÇÖ self to those headaches, why handicap your chances of success should the ultimate need arise?
      If you are still intent on carrying a sub-compact chambered in 9mm, 380ACP, 32ACP, or even 25ACP good luck. Maybe youÔÇÖll be fortunate and temporarily blind the assailant, so you can run away!
      Look at the daily reports of shootings in Chicago. It is common to see 60 to 70 people shot there in one weekend and yet only (ÔÇ£onlyÔÇØ) 4 or 5 die. Some will say its because we have better medical services than ever before, but the overwhelming majority of these shootings (many with multiple wounds) involve the 9mm Parabellum. If these shootings had been committed using the 45ACP, the majority of those shot would not have lasted till paramedics made it to their locations.

      I ask only one more question: Why, after using the 9mm Parabellum for 33 years in American military service, are the United States Marines re-issuing the 1911 Government Model in 45ACP?
      I can tell you why.
      ItÔÇÖs like the fellow said, ÔÇ£It just kills bugs dead.ÔÇØ

  1. I like the 9mm makarov it has a little more stopping power than a 380 but can still be concealed easily. The CZ82 is a great double stack option that holds 12 rounds.

  2. The bottom line here is what can you shoot effectively. If you can put one 40 cal in the mid chest of an attacker continuously then you have met the criteria; that will drop your attacker. If you can’t, but can put 3 or 4 380s in the chest of an attacker, you have just done the same thing. If you can put 3 or 4 22 slugs in the head of an attacker you not only kill him/her, you have my utmost respect.

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