Handgun Capacity: Quality or Quantity?

Black SIG P228 9mm in case with cartridges

Whenever a feature on the revolver, .45 auto or a high-capacity pistol is published, the comments often center on round capacity. A perceived need or real need is the debate. The national debate on magazine capacity is also a heady subject. I leave the political debate to the experts at the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation. My views are four square for liberty and freedom.

I own a number of high-capacity rifles just for the hell of it. Damned if I will let Washington affect my buying habits—and I have enough magazines for the duration, just in case. The question is important when it comes to personal defense. Rifles for military use have followed a progression from single-shot to under-the-barrel to rotary magazines, plus en bloc and detachable magazines.

Twenty rounds appears to be the manageable limit for .30-caliber battle rifles. The shorter, mid-range calibers may use 30-round magazines, with 20-round AR magazines almost passé. There are larger magazines available, ranging from 60 to 100 rounds or so. In my mind, they are purely recreational. They are great fun, but they destroy the handling of the rifle, at least in my hands. and few are reliable. That said, the real question is handguns.

While the AR 15-type rifle seems to have settled into the 30-round standard as most practical, handguns are all over the map. A service-grade handgun in .45 ACP may chamber eight rounds. A high-capacity 9mm may chamber 18. Many carry high-capacity 9mms and two spare magazines while attending to their daily business. The question is: Are they prepared Americans or tactical hypochondriacs?

Then there are those who carry five-shot .38s and no spare gun loads. Are they taking their lives in their hands, or do the statistics support their choice? If you do your research, conflicting events support either theory. Sometimes, you will need a significant number of shots. Other times, one or two will suffice.

As Colonel Jeff Cooper said, “Statistics are primarily useful for rascals to impress fools.” After taking the usual boring mean, mode and statistical analysis classes, I understand the validity of some statistics. Probability and possibility must be considered in personal defense, however.

The Mindset

The mindset is a tremendous field of study. The modern mindset may be colored by the cinema and fiction more than first-hand accounts of critical incidents. There are those who trust a revolver and little else. They believe a single, hard hit from a Magnum revolver is superior to a flurry of rounds from a less powerful self-loader. There is something to that mindset.

On the other hand, having grown up with men who carried revolvers, those in service for any length of time carried two revolvers. For all except the most practiced shooter, reloading a revolver during a gun battle is not an option; drawing a second revolver is a viable solution. Surely, we all practice to make the first gun load work.

The first three shots are the most important. With some luck, you will have sufficient focus to manipulate a piece properly and make a hit. I see a low-level of dedication in many training courses, and that simply is not going to cut it in the real world. If you take seriously a study of high-round-count gunfights, you realize the reason they are high-round count is because there are a lot of missed rounds.

Some believe the .45 ACP is the superior personal defense cartridge. They hedge their bets with a high-capacity handgun. In my experience, the greater girth of the grip and heavier weight of the high-capacity .45 are counterproductive and lead to a handgun that is more difficult to use well. However, a 10-shot, double-action, first-shot .45 in the form of the SIG P227 or Baby Desert Eagle are interesting service pistols.

There is an understanding among shooters that handgun calibers are poor stoppers compared to rifles and shotguns. The weak .38 and strong .45 are more alike than different when compared to a 12-gauge shotgun. So, we may need a lot of shots, and we better have a lot of shots is the theory. Still, a bigger bullet makes a larger wound and lets out more blood.

Others split the difference and adopt the .40-caliber cartridge. As time goes by, I have increasing respect for the .40 caliber. By the same token, I see students attempt to use .40-caliber compacts that kick too much. A mid-size .40, such as the SIG P229, offers a high degree of protection.

Then there are high-capacity 9mm handguns.

I see more concealed-carry handgun shooters adopt revolvers more powerful than the old 5-shot .38 standard. The .357 Magnum snubby and .44 Special short-barrel revolver are popular. I believe a 7-shot .357 makes sense. A five-shot .44 does as well because a heavy-frame .44 is too much for constant carry. However, most concealed-carry permit holders use self-loaders.

I took a hard look at some of my favorite high-capacity pistols and compared each on a performance basis and to understand how much magazine capacity is tied to my appreciation of a pistol. I doubt I would enjoy the CZ 75, HK P30 or SIG P226 as much if were they 10-shooters. I know I would not. I would adopt a .45, hands down.

The CZ 75B rail gun and SIG P226 Navy Model are similar, tactically. Each is accurate and reliable. However, the CZ has a 17-round magazine, which was accomplished by adding an extended base pad. So, I have an 18-shot 9mm pistol. That is impressive and means I have three shots each to five targets plus a three-shot reserve.

The problem is I do not like those base pads. They add unnecessary bulk and are the only reason I use the SIG more than the CZ. Those base pads make the pistol more difficult to conceal, and I think they also affect the balance, although that may be subjective. I cannot recall how many times I have seen aftermarket base pads break and fail during a training class. They are a convenient item for some, but I do not use them on any of my handguns.

The CZ magazines are factory units and never have failed, yet they add bulk. I think it is particularly unwise to choose a compact handgun then add the bulk of a magazine extension. Why not simply choose a full-size pistol, with its longer sight radius and superior handling? The extended magazine is just as long as a full-size grip and does nothing for handling.

Then there is the PK 30. It is lighter than the other full-size 9mm pistols and demands concentration; however, it rewards a practiced shooter with excellent accuracy. I would feel as if my options were proscribed if it were a 10-shooter. I am certain I would adopt the .40 in that case. With the Winchester +P loading, I have confidence in this handgun.

And there are the light and lovely 9mm compacts. I am somewhat enamored of the SIG P228, a classic, out-of-print pistol. The P229 is heavier and simply does not have the same feel. Do I honestly sweat over the P228’s 13-round capacity compared to the SIG P226’s 15 rounds? Of course not. Among the favorite 9mm handguns is the 9-shot HKP7M8. I no longer own one and lament the loss. The high-capacity HKM13 did not come off as well, I think. By the same token, I would not feel under armed with the P225 9mm, and the P228 handles at least as well. The Beretta 92A1 compact is an impressive piece, particularly in the Inox version, and a treasure to own and fire.

Which Totem do We Worship?

It all comes down to personal preference in what we carry, and then we hope for the best. Few are prepared for the worst-case scenario: multiple, motivated opponents. A bank robbery by an armed team or a take-over robbery at a pharmacy or jewelry store come to mind. If you are caught in such an action, you should be prepared. It is not unusual for such teams to decide to eliminate living witnesses. They do that for their own safety and to avoid identification and imprisonment, and sometimes they do it for the hell of it.

There are options.

Some years ago, I interviewed a young cop who did not act when he witnessed an armed robbery at a fast-food restaurant. There were two gunmen with handguns, and all the young man had was a five-shot .38. He did not believe he had a fighting chance. I suppose I could have asked him why he carried the gun, although I did not.

Then there was Arlene Beckles. On Feburary 5, 1994, NYPD cop Beckles was in a styling salon when three gunmen attempted to rob it. She fired her five-shot .38 dry, dropping one robber for good and wounding the other two.

What is Your Mantra?

There are two important considerations: caliber and capacity. Some vary the theme from day to day and for each situation.

But a gunfight is the same, and the demands constant, whatever piece you carry.

  • A five-shot .38 for a quick trip to the 7-11 is common.
  • Then, when traveling, perhaps a 9mm and a spare magazine.
  • Others believe the .45 automatic is the best combination, offering good hit probability with a fight-stopping cartridge.

The bottom line is you must consider your situation.

Master the firearm you have chosen. Be certain it is reliable with your chosen load, and the magazines are reliable, service grade and do not protrude beneath the magazine well. They must fit flush as every firearms designer, from Browning to GLOCK, intended. Capacity is a good thing, provided you can deliver the payload accurately. Practice and become formidable with your handgun.

The life you save may be your own.

Do you think quantity is the deciding factor when choosing your handgun? Or do you think it is quality? Share in the comments section.


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Comments (307)

  1. @Dr Dave: “I want a shoot around corner attachment”……what?……Surely a surgeon can build a slightly more logical scenario and argument for his point of view……OK, we get it, you’re a surgeon….but that doesn’t make you an armament expert.

    @G-Man: “no single round is better than the next”…….Wrong!!…..Hello?……So I should stop paying $40 a box for Underwood 10mm 200gr XTP and just go to the 99 Cent Store and buy a box of 22LR?……NO!……The answer is that if you’re comfortable and accurate with a larger caliber, then you have the advantage. If you cannot handle your own gun, then a 15YO hood rat can kill you with a 22LR.

    @Bob H: Thanks for your olympic biathalon example. Excellent point!!!!

    1. @G-Man: OK I get that you seem to come from a higher level law enforcement perspective. I get what you’re saying about LE choosing specific weapons and calibers for specific purposes. I do that too, but not nearly on their level of expertise.

      But still, I disagree with anything you said trying to minimize the effects of larger ammo over smaller ammo.

    2. @ ss1: Don’t take my word for it, it’s not even my opinion. I was originally in your camp. But years of training and experience has proven to me otherwise, as has a plethora of coroner’s reports that irrefutably establish that ammo of all shapes and sizes do crazy unexpected things and no two results are ever identical or guaranteed to be more lethal than another.

      For over 30 years I’ve professionally watched ballistics sciences attempt to unravel the mysteries behind these often unexpected results. The only thing that science has confirmed is it remains astonishingly unpredictable.

      What has changed over the years is the emergence of embedded surgical medical professionals into our tactical teams. So now these surgeons witness and contend firsthand with real-world gunshot traumas as they occur in the field and all the way through to the OR table. Many are world renowned and have had their findings published in law enforcement training curriculum so others may learn and benefit from these tragedies.

      One thing they emphatically continue to relay to us in training courses is that a larger round has no correlation to the lethality over any other caliber. Time and time again the evidence shows it is shot placement, of any caliber, over size that determines the effectiveness.

      This seems to hold true in my previous case example where a 45 is what saved the life, where a .22 would have reached the artery. There really is nothing more to be said on the issue.

    3. Not to prolong an argument that will NEVER be resolved to universal satisfaction, but you do realize that your two statements- the results of any GSW are “astonishingly unpredictable” and “Had it been a smaller round of ball type ammo as in a .22 or 5.56 it would have continued through to sever the artery resulting in immediate death.”- stand in direct contradiction of one another, don’t you? 😉

    4. Damn Bob H, you are good!!!!

      Also, let me add this G-Man critique…….”a 45 is what saved the life, where a .22 would have reached the artery”……………Well let’s not forget that a 45 ACP is a very low velocity caliber. If it would have been a 10mm, it would have created a large cavity AND penetrated to the artery. Now G-Man will tell me why the FBI turned down the 10mm in 1961 or something like that. Hey, too bad for them!

    5. @ ss1: If you don’t mind, I would prefer in the future you address me as “G-Man Critique Extraordinaire”.

      I will assume you were being facetious because the FBI never turned down the 10mm in 1961, or at any time in its history really.

      They still use it to this day in all their standard issued Glock 22s and 23s. Back in the ‘90s they just had the 10mm shortened for a lighter load and renamed it the .40 S&W… of which has become the most widely used law enforcement round in the world to date.

    6. @G-Man: I’m not one of the historians on this forum and I whipped out “1961” because of that, and because I’m working. So I did a quick check on Wiki just now. Apparently the FBI “de-commissioned” the 10mm in the 80’s. But according to Wiki, certain special tactical units may still use 10mm.

      No matter what the FBI does, it’s obvious from my posts that I’m passionate about 10mm.

      Most of us already know where 40 S&W came from, and now it is a separate caliber with it’s own Glock models.

    7. @ ss1: You being a fan of the 10mm (and rightly so), I just wanted to ensure you were aware the FBI never formally issued the 10mm out to their SAs.

      This all happened in a fluid flurry so-to-speak from 1989 to 1990. Once ballistics testing had concluded the Director quickly authorized the switch to the 10mm and an initial order was placed. However, the first trials for agents at the firing range did not go well. That led to their redesign of the 10mm into the shortened version that we have all come to know as the 40 S&W.

      As to not waste the 10s already ordered, they issued them for use to their S.W.A.T. and Hostage Rescue Teams. This led Glock to develop their Glock 20 (10mm) which is still manufactured to this day.

    8. @ bob h: In all honesty, yes I did realize that myself. I was actually hoping no one as astute as yourself would catch it for fear it would ruin a good point.

      We hear war stories all the time about how, “The Doc said a half inch to the left and I’d have been a gonner”. At some point I’m sure some doctor was correct to say that. So given there is some probability of accuracy to those scenarios I don’t feel your catch should diminish my point – that being, it is not an exact science.

      Good catch though, so Kudos.

  2. I’ve been reading the back and forth here and thought I’d weigh in. The bottom line here is that there isn’t one. No one side has any more right to their claim than the other. And you all are ridiculously engaging in a futile argument if you think you do.

    We are giants when compared to the minute size of any projectiles that can be hurled into the human body, yet you guys continue to argue over fractions of an inch or millimeters between sizes.

    There are however facts to back up an overwhelming consensus amongst professionals ranging from FBI forensics labs to world famous pathologists and that is – ammunition size has proven to be less of a factor in their studies. It is instead the specific ballistic characteristics and shot placement that was the final deadly defining factor.

    Case and point – a victim of a 45 wound survived due to its larger ballistic mass and hollow-point characteristics which guided it short of a major artery. Had it been a smaller round of ball type ammo as in a .22 or 5.56 it would have continued through to sever the artery resulting in immediate death.

    At a minimum, science has already established the final conclusion on such arguments which is that size is the least effective point from which this topic should be debated. Again, it is ballistics characteristics and shot placement.

    Rather than calling the .22 round a joke or relegating it to only children, I think a more advisable path would be to show respect for the round that has killed more people than any other in history.

    I would instead offer up a more eloquent way out of such arguments by encouraging each of you to show you possess the knowledge and intellect that no single round is better than the next – because each has its specific place and valid application for a purpose.

    If challenged, I would refer to those that already know and have well established there are various rounds and weapons platforms for varying degrees of threat and application. Law enforcement and military personnel know this already. Even within their agencies they apply different ballistic weapons to each different subgroups and teams based on the specific regions and long or short term missions they’ve been assigned.

    For example, an officer on vehicle gate duty would be equipped with a sidearm round designated for windshield impact and pass-through followed by soft target penetration. An officer expected to patrol housing areas may instead carry a round better designed to not exit through soft tissue and walls due to close quarters.

    I submit the smart argument is really no argument. But rather you should exude and share your vast understanding of condition based effectiveness for each type of round and weapons platform. Each exists for a reason and has earned their place and purpose in the market.

  3. Ok challenge time
    lets get 30 guys 28 on their side and you and me on our side. You have say 20 shots of 40 S&W and I will bring 20 shots of 22LR. My weapon will be Ruger 10/22 with a Picc rail I want full optics day and night and flashlight and a sound exciter to make the shots LOIDER .I want a shoot around corner attachment and lasers. ALL well tuned at say 30ft but whatever I need t know precisely what they are tuned for.

    They get simple hand weapons with all the ammo they can tolerate. Who will win? We will of course. While they are flipping and flapping trying to put us in the cross hairs changing the shorts enduring the pain of ever single shot colliding with human flesh we will have won. Contact is criminal remember that it isn’t what you have left or what you delivered it is what you delivered that mattered. Telling me you connected in the lower leg means nothing but my 22lr is going to connect mid-body or throat every shot and a half dozen there won’t be any concern of return fire I can simply unload the rest of the mag where I need to and call it a done deal. The stats NEVER talk about shooting in times of on coming weaponry. I don’t know about you but if I pull it AND use it I KNOW there is forthcoming weapon fire coming at me. The few extra rounds of 22 properly placed while they are still trying to figure where I am and get cross hairs focused is MORE then enough to clean up house. Now in that 1% of 1% or 1% that the other side has military type 3 ammo vests with front and back plates taking the vest up to NIJ level 4 I am screwed unless I can get all throat and head shots but other then that unrealistic scenario I win every time. It is simply getting lead on target and knowing where that target is. You need to cut open 20 or 30 beings to know where to focus and where to avoid. I gave you a freebie right below the chin in the to of the neck is a 100% kill and for those of you who are coming up with a kidnapping it severs the spine so no concern of them slicing the victim as they fall. The vic just falls and runs the pirp is RIP
    Either eye ovoid the mouth too easy to go down the air passage or feeding rube but in either ear 2: below the Adam’s apple is also goo. Instead if hitting center mass slow down, close in, shoot for precision and win rather then shoot crazily and win after exhausted 3 mags od refills
    Precision is key slow down there is no hurry most shooting events the parties are too involved in shooting to run and do the job right. Toss the TV and use what us anatomically correct and I bet you won’t need a refill or to carry a monster weapon that makes Speedos look ridiculous
    Dr D

    1. This is getting just a bit ridiculous. I’ve seen quite literally hundreds of people shot with handgun calibers, both survivors and those killed. The total number of rounds expended in those shooting incidents easily exceed 1000.
      The idea that a GSW to an extremity will disable an attacker with *any* handgun caliber is silly “armchair expert” stuff. Unless a major bone is broken it simply doesn’t happen.
      The assertion that a .22 LR round to the throat/neck is both immediately fatal AND easy to hit is more silliness and I don’t care how “cool under fire” the shooter is or how high tech of a firearm he is using. Look at Olympic biathlon competitors. They *practice* precision shooting while their heart is pounding. Their rifles are specifically designed to achieve utmost accuracy and tailored to fit them perfectly yet they still miss targets MUCH larger than the 1″ x 2″ kill zone of a throat/neck shot and that’s when no one is shooting back.

  4. After 25 years of slicing and dicing human bodies what I can tell you is when the radio squawks GSW we know the results aren’t going to be good. Caliber is important more so as Bob has mentioned for the ability to put lead on target then to get XYZ inches of penetration or ABC of expansion. Bottom-line I have picked out 50 cals from guys who lived to talk about it and single 22LRs that we tossed in the evidence bag and the body whisked away to the coroner
    I would MUCH prefer to hit a shot straight through the upper portion of the windpipe with a 22LR (causing instantaneous death due to spinal cord separation) then to wing someone with 7 shots to the extremities with a 44 mag or 40 cal S&W

    1. @Irchard and @Dr Dave:

      Your 22lr logic is flawed. I’m sure if I took the time, there are countless stories of bad guys being shot 8 times with 22lr who didn’t get stopped. Plus, many of us have heard the stories of troops complaining that enemies shot with 5.56 kept coming. And at least 5.56 has extreme velocity. 22LR is for children, and for hit men at point blank range. Anyone else who wants to REALLY defend themselves needs a bigger caliber. There are plenty of guns and calibers to choose from that can shoot straight enough to kill on the first shot.

      My Ruger 44 Magnum Super Redhawk is CAN’T MISS with it’s long barrel. I use Hornady self defense loads at home for safe expansion. My Glock 20 Gen 4 10mm is accurate enough at 15 yards to use in my home. But I do have my shotgun nearby for special situations.

      But 22LR is a joke. Why everyone is hoarding these things I will never understand. But then there’s a bunch of things discussed here, either by article writers, or public posters, that I will never understand either.

  5. From what I’ve read about statistics, hospital records show more peoiple are killed with 22’s than any other caliber. So why do you need a cannon? One 22 shot to the head is better than 15 shots to the arm with a .40 or my book. Good training and good shot placement means a whole lot more than caliber.

  6. Hi ss1,

    Well I looked and it is $29.99 now. But the TMJ (total metal jacket, which has the copper jacket also on the base of the bullet) used to be $27.00. I bought a bunch of it at that price.

    It has 718 foot pounds of energy.

    And yes, he has trouble keeping it in stock. You have to stock up on whatever loads he has in stock and maybe wait for another load you may want.

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