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 decisions. 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.

  3. That’s strange… I was in the military and for some odd reason (I suppose) they did issue me a handgun and a M16. I guess they slipped up on that whole no handguns to military rule this article states.

    That being said, my .45 is fine for one shot drop if I use it correctly, as I’ve never met a real life Superman who can stop it with his invulnerable forehead..

    Perhaps it should say for people who can’t hit what they are aiming at…

  4. I carry a .45 ACP Remington 1911 R1. I carried a Colt 1911 for many years in the Army and it shot pretty well, but I don’t think there is a smother firing 1911 on the market than the 1911 R 1. Double tap center mass right out of the box….in fact the rest of the 8 round clip was in the same place a couple of seconds later. Yep, not easy to conceal, I have an inside the trousers clip on holster….and long shirt tails….but if you know how to shoot, i recommend this nice little peace. I have hydro shock ammo for it but I don’t think I need it and if you shop at Surplus Ammo you can get FMJ ammo pretty cheap if you watch their sales. Of course, like is stated above, you do need to carry what suits you the best. The is no one size fits all handgun. I have over 40 years with the 1911….so I can say I’m comfortable with it….I hope.

  5. hair spray & a lighter. I sets ’em on fire. My neighbor went to use his 1911 on sum escaped convicts who broke in on him, and it wouldn’t fire, they took it from him and tied him up and gang raped him. He’s a glock guy nowadays.

  6. There’s No such Thing as Cheap ammo anymore.. Most handgun ammo is around $1.00 a round. There are a few exceptions, but are hard to find.

  7. I’m not a doctor, and don’t play one on TV.
    So, in my humble opinion;

    I follow tradition. A well placed 22lr, will do far more damage than a 44mag miss. The best caliber is the one that you can CONTROL! Don’t let your EGO dictate your gun size!

    Bullets kill by shock. The human body consists of several enclosed systems. A one shot stop, is achieved by interrupting one or more of these systems, with such force, that either the brain gets overloaded, and decides to ‘shut-down’, or the projectile’s temporary cavity imparts such trauma to the internal organs, that the brain does a ‘no-mas’, and shuts down. Once down, people either bleed to death, suffocate, drown in their own blood or expire from no blood flow, or never recover from damaged internal organs.

  8. I have enjoyed reading the data contained in the many Internet programs. I have been educating myself so that I may proceed with some knowledge in making my choice in purchasing a new pistol. A few days ago I experienced an excellent presentation by a gentleman under the caption entitled “which 22 caliber pistol would be best for me”. One of the pistols he pointed out as his favorite was a High Standard supermatic citation 22 caliber military style target pistol. The narrator of this Internet video used the code name 22plinker. I would like to sell this pistol. It is in pristine condition being fired only four times since I personally purchased it in 1968 at the High Standard factory in Hamden, CT, Can you help me locate 22plinker. I am Michael Barletta tel # 203. 250 . 7002. E mail mikebarletta@cox.net. thank you.

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  9. personally speaking i bought my glock 22 gen 4 – for home defense. my original intention was to conceal carry a glock 27 after having adapted to the 40 S&W cartridge — and i know they say you should buy a gun that fits you. personally i’m old school – you were given a tool – shown how to use it and expected to adapt to the tool. the 40 was a little snappy for my taste but i found with some modifications to the gun – it’s very tame now. infact, i would wager it has less recoil than a stock 9mm. double taps to center mass are a dream and long range accuracy doesn’t suffer either. due to these things and it being a good overall full grip in my hand – i actually prefer to open or even conceal carry my glock 22. it’s a little beefy but i know after 1000+ rounds and a tiny bit of tuning on my behalf – i can comfortably carry this gun in a ready to fire state for instant draw and fire. i know because of it being a glock – it will cycle most anything i have to feed through it. i know because of having replaced the spring cups w/ marine cups – that even in rain, flood, or flat out submersed conditions – it will ALWAYS cycle and fire – and perhaps i went a little overboard w/ the viridan x5l attached to it – but i know that should i need to kick on a light in the middle of the night and don’t have the coordination to hold a flashlight w/ 1 hand and the gun in the other – w/ my taclight — where it shines, is where i’m firing — so if being blinded by 180+ lumens isn’t enough to get some moron out of my house in the dead of night, 1-2 trigger squeezes surely will and this goes for ANY condition. i know people preach and preach about bullet caliber and finding a gun that fits you.. i hate to say it but i respectfully disagree. i chose my glock based on ballistics information. bc i wanted to know for a fact that the 40 S&W round would drop an intruder with as few shots as possible and would penetrate enough to where there was no dumb luck that would save the person’s bacon. i was raised to believe you don’t point a gun at something unless you aim to destroy it. given that ringing in the back of my head – i wanted to make sure they weren’t getting up after 1-2 shots. thus the choice for 40 S&W. i would have gone 10mm but ammo availability here prevents that. and lets face it.. who wants to pay 20 bucks for a box of ammo and nearly 20 for shipping? all in – i spent 550 on the glock itself and probably in the ballpark of 300-400 in mod parts to tune the glock to fit me (minus the x5l). this might be a little steep but i KNOW that no matter what – my glock is there – it’s not so small that anyone could forget they have it.. nor is it so big and heavy that it’s a burden to carry. it can be controlled and isn’t a pain to fire. i know that whether in light or dark conditions – i can get rounds on target QUICKLY, and most importantly IF i have to discharge my firearm at a person – i don’t have to worry about having to squeeze off 5 or 6 well placed rounds to stop them. simply aim center mass and 1-2 rounds.. they’re not getting up, i don’t have to worry about putting half a magazine in them, and my issues are resolved quickly and easily.

  10. I’ve found the Springfield XD40 Subcompact to be a good compromise between carry comfort and power. It is also surprisingly accurate with Ivans at 35 yards all head shots 12 round mag. Recoil is manageable for center mass “double tap” and the grip/trigger dual safety allows for chambered round carry on the range or in an alert condition with instant draw firing. After 400+ rounds at the range, I have yet to have a misfire or jam. I tested powder buildup reliability with a 175 round session without cleaning and it ran flawlessly.

  11. Four .25ACP holes = one .50 hole.

    You can’t carry a mouser and expect a one shot kill (and the accuracy of pocket guns stops that anyway).

    Pocket guns are meant to be emptied into one or two targets. A typical 9shot .25 ACP will put 4-5 rounds into a person in short order which is usually enough to stop them.

    The difference is in the ability to keep the gun on target and putting out punishment until the attacker is crying out in death. That takes training – but is still a better option than no gun or a gun you hesitate to shoot.

    Now, if you can, go bigger – always, both in caliber and mag size – but don’t put fear into the hearts of women who need the smaller caliber. They need all the courage they have to put that attacker into the ground.

    I welcome anyone who complains that a caliber is too small to carry to volunteer to demonstate how ineffective it is on them as they charge me.

  12. My main criteria is comfort. I had back surgery 10 years ago and hanging a full size and even some smaller pistols on my waistband can cause me quite a bit of discomfort making me to not want to carry at all. I have been carrying a PA-63 chambered in 9mm Makarov for some time now and it is very comfortable (due in part to its alloy frame), most of the time. While the caliber isn’t my first choice in a defensive pistol, I feel that it will get the job done.

  13. This is information that needs to be repeated frequently for folks that are new to handguns; finding the right combination is a bit of a journey. My mother (79 years) keeps a .45 Blackhawk for her house gun. The big single action is easy for arthritic, partially maimed hands to operate, and she loves to shoot it. She has a smaller pistol for concealed carry when she is away from home, and it was chosen for fit to her hands, and ease of operation so she can bring it into action quickly if it is ever needed. Finding the right guns for her took a lot of shopping, and lots of shooting.

  14. You know I have to say that this article on caliber size is just another in a long line of “Lazy Man Articles” that goes to false security that I have seen on the Web.

    It’s an attempt to persuade that its an O.K situation to carry a .22, .25, .32 cause you didn’t do any homework on bullet penetration, you hate to practice, you can’t afford 20 bucks for a box of chunky bullets to fire, your little pistol fits into your European man-purse nicely, and you probably wont need to use your pistol anyway.
    Shame. There is lots of literature and testing out there that far outweighs the info in this article.

  15. WHile I don’t advocate carrying anything smaller than 9mm, I usually answer my students with “the one you are going to have with you is the best choice for carry”. That .22LR or .380 in your pocket is far superior to the .45 ACP back home in your gun safe.

  16. To quote Jeff Quinn: “I love the .22 Long Rifle cartridge. It is, and has long been, my favorite cartridge. I can do at least ninety percent of what I need to do with a rifle chambered for that dandy little cartridge. It is an excellent cartridge for small game, and can also be used to harvest turkey and deer, if necessary. I am glad that I have other, more powerful rifles at my disposal, but if I had to pare down to just one rifle, it would be chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge. That answer usually disappoints people who ask me the “If you could only have one” question, which is, by the way, a rather rude question, akin to asking a man to choose his favorite child or something. I suppose that most folks expect me to choose something larger, and I do love big-bore rifles, but none are quite as versatile as a good twenty-two. It is distasteful to think that I would ever have only one rifle, but if it came down to it, it would have to be a twenty-two. Rifles chambered for that cartridge have been around for well over a century, and the .22 Long Rifle is the most popular cartridge in the world.” (from http://www.gunblast.com/SW-MP1522.htm)

    Admittedly he’s talking about using 22LR in a rifle, but I think the reasoning stands. Having ANY gun, at hand, loaded and familiar is better than no gun. All the talk around gun caliber PERIOD, let alone just handguns, seems to boil down to some kind of macho BS “I can pee further than you” kind of diatribe. Closely behind the anecdotes of people being shot a hundred times with 22LR and living are the personal attacks on whomever has the differing opinion.

    As you say, ammo is expensive. If you cannot afford to regularly practice with the caliber of your gun you will not practice and you will not be as prepared when the moment of truth comes.

    All that said, I think .380 is a kind of non-starter because of how expensive it’s become. You can get nice a 9mm carry gun with similar dimensions and weight and spend less on the ammo.

  17. The statement about availability hits home for me. I carry a Charter Arms Bulldog in .44 Special – trying to get ammo is a real pain and expensive! I’m looking at .45 autos for that very reason. Yes, I’m a fan of big bullets. Having said that, I’m almost never without my NAA mini in .22 Magnum. Fits in my gym shorts when out exercising and gives me great comfort concerning the loose dogs and wild coyotes (both two and four legged) that plague our rural area.

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