Handgun Cartridges — A Retrospective Look

Multiple spent bullets

The explosion in handgun choice, and the proliferation of handgun calibers and loads, is immensely interesting. Whether you wish to use a certain caliber and load or not, each is intriguing. However, did you know that the popular cartridges of today fill the same basic niche in the same relation to others since Sam Colt codified the pocket, belt, and holster pistol. Colt’s revolvers were offered in .31, .36 and .44 most commonly. The .31 served the same role as today’s .380 ACP pocket pistol; the .36 was the 9mm of the day, and the .44, well, the .44.

Multiple cartridges ranging from 9mm to 12 gauge
One thing is for certain; compared to long-gun cartridges the handgun cartridge isn’t very powerful.

Along the way, there was some shoe horning of different calibers into small frame sizes. The Colt Army .44 used the .36 frame. The cylinder was rebated to allow use of a .457-inch ball and the frame was cut out to allow the greater diameter of the larger cylinder. The .44 Colt Army solved the problem of a portable man stopper and horse killer but proved to shoot loose more quickly than the .36 Colt Navy, which wasn’t surprising. Momentum will do that. We relearned that with the .40.

The cartridge revolver followed much the same path. After all, the first cartridge revolvers firing serious cartridges were modified from cap and ball revolvers. The new cartridges in .38 and .44 were not as powerful as a fully loaded black powder revolver, and the pointed bullet was harder and less likely to expand than the soft lead ball previously used.

Soon, we had the .32 and .38 pocket revolvers and the powerful .45 Colt revolver cartridge. The .38-40 was in ballistic terms the equal of the .40 S&W, even offered at one time with a 165-grain JHP loading. The .44-40 is similar to the 10mm with a 200-grain bullet at about 1,000 fps. I suspect that there wasn’t a lot that needed doing these cartridges could not do.

Denim target with bullet holes
Sometimes the author uses denim to test bullet expansion.

Once we had these three cartridges—and the .32-20 WCF for small game—we had the handgunning world well covered. The next big step was the popularity of self-loading pistols. The .32 ACP was hotter than the .32 Smith and Wesson Long with a 71-grain bullet at 1,000 fps versus the .32 revolver’s 98-grain RNL bullet at 750 fps. The .45 ACP was introduced in 1905 and the 9mm Luger adopted by Germany in 1908. These cartridges offered considerably higher velocity than comparable revolver cartridges and were efficient as they were designed from the outset for smokeless powder.

There were a number of interesting high-velocity cartridges available at the turn of the previous century. The .32-20 WCF was among the first cartridges hot loaded by handloaders and this whetted their appetite for Magnum cartridges. A 115-grain, hard cast, lead bullet at 1200 fps is pretty interesting. Then, the Borchardt cartridge found its way into the Mauser C96 and eventually became the hot bottleneck 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev. A hard jacketed 86-grain bullet at 1400 fps has much to recommend in penetrating web gear.

There were no internet forums at the time, but word of mouth and periodicals contained lively debate on handgun cartridges. Many loved technology and found the new German pistols—the Luger and the Mauser—interesting even if terribly expensive. Pragmatic lawmen kept the Colt SAA and trusted the piece with good reason, but some began to appreciate the steady trigger and two extra shots of the 1911 .45.

Two revolvers fitted with Ahrends wood grips
These revolvers, fitted with Ahrends grips, are chambered for the .357 Magnum and .38 Special cartridges, respectively. They get the job done and fill a real need.

Those who used the 1911 in combat formed opinions that were to be respected and which still hold true today. As an example, T E Lawrence and his brother each obtained 1911 .45s as soon as the pistols were available in Europe. Lawrence’s brother noted that the Colt was ‘leagues ahead of everything else in the trenches.’ Lawrence also used the Mauser Broomhandle and Colt SAA.

By 1900, there was some scientific testing of handgun bullets against cadavers and live animals. This was valuable in its day, and pine boards were used to test pistol penetration. One such pine board test damned the poor performance of the .41 Colt, as an example. Animal testing included hunters in the American West using handguns to take game.

The .44-40, particularly with heavy loads, was widely respected as an outdoorsman’s cartridge. As Elmer Keith remarked, ‘a big deer is about the size of a man and about as hard to put down, but a man is more susceptible to shock.’ Meanwhile, the .380 ACP was developed for use in .32 ACP-size pistols and has retained a relative position in the scheme of things since. So, have the 9mm and the .45. Each has hung on based upon some perceived or real advantage. Each has profited by modern powder and bullet technology with incrementally improved ballistics.

.38 caliber revolvers with a Philippine Bolo
The .45 certainly gives a greater degree of confidence that the .38, no matter what the action type. Against a Philippine Bolo odds were even.

Outdoorsmen experimented with the .38 Special, and law officers did as well, looking for a more powerful loading for their service revolvers. Quite a few .38 Special, .44 Special, and .45 Colt revolvers were blown with the cylinder exploding and the top strap peeled back. Cartridges originally designed for black powder can hold enough smokeless powder to turn the revolver into a hand grenade. The self-loader will usually suffer breakage of the small parts and not blow when the shooters tried to turn the .45 ACP, as an example, into the .45 Colt.

Along the way, certain cartridges enjoyed short spans of popularity and today appeal to diehard fans. The .38 ACP Super and .44 Special, each excellent cartridges, are among these. The .38 Super allowed Colt to offer a middle of the road caliber after they stopped manufacturing the Model 1900 .38 ACP and also allowed them to offer a pistol legal for sale in South America, where military calibers were prohibited.

The caliber was popular with the FBI as it offered the greatest penetration of any common pistol caliber. It was used against the new breed of mechanized bandit. When the .357 Magnum was introduced in 1935 it pretty much replaced the .38 Super. We were, after all, a nation of revolver men, never mind the .357 Magnum cost twice what a good .38 Special revolver cost.

Barnes all copper bullet
The Barnes all copper bullet is something of a wonder bullet that offers excellent performance.

An incidental trend was the development of hunting-oriented cartridges. These included the popular .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and eventually the mighty .454 Casull. The .41 Magnum makes one wonder what Smith and Wesson and gunwriters were thinking.

A service pistol over 35 ounces becomes a burden at the end of the day and .38 Special +P recoil is about all the average cop, qualifying once a year, is willing to stand. Yet, the 48 ounce .41 Magnum was introduced as a cop gun. It petered out pretty quickly, more quickly than the later 10mm. Later, the FBI found the 9mm not enough and the 10mm ideal, then the 10mm too much, the .40 just right, and the 9mm back on the list. I would put in a vote for the .38 Super. The FBI agents armed with the Colt .38 ACP Super, in 1932, were possibly the best-armed agents ever.

Today, the .38 Special, 9mm, and .45 ACP have enjoyed well over 100 years of service with no end in sight. There is a lot of interest in other calibers, some of which are pretty surprising. As an example, several of my acquaintances choose the 7.62 Tokarev as a carry gun. I would like to see a ¾-size 1911 chambered for the 7.62 x 25mm. If loaded with the 85-grain Hornady XTP bullet at 1500 fps, we just might have a very interesting combination for carry and field shooting.

Three Barnes all copper bullets

I suspect it would shoot as flat as a stretched wire. I will have to get by with the Tokarev for the moment. The primary requirement I have for a handgun is quality manufacture and reliability. Modern handguns are more reliable and accurate than ever. The ergonomics of the better class are excellent. Modern 1911s resemble their primogenitors but CNC machining and other improvements have made them much better handguns.

The same may be said of Smith and Wesson revolvers. They are more reliable and even safer with transfer bar ignition. Ammunition is also better. As an example, in 1916, Winchester was given a military contract that specified no more than one primer failure in 100,000 cartridges. The standard is even higher today. That is what is called service grade reliability.

Having seen the JSP fail in police work and wonder loads such as the B.A.T. come and go, forgive me if I am not excited about the newest wonder load claiming to do what the best loads from a 100-year-old maker cannot. The ones we have work pretty well and will be going for some time. When a member of our protein-fed ex-con criminal class looks at you as if you owe him money and isn’t taking no for an answer, the choice is more than theoretical. Cartridges sometimes work in very specific ways and we arrive at different answers to the same problems. These are interesting times.

Old or new? How much difference do the modern calibers vary from those of a century ago? DO you agree with the author’s analysis or have a different view. Share your answers and opinions in the comment section.


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
Rifle Magazine
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 (30)

  1. A little late to the party, but this is probably the most informed pistol comment I have seen in the last 10 years:

    “The FBI agents armed with the Colt .38 ACP Super, in 1932, were possibly the best-armed agents ever.”

    Amen, and advice we would all be well advised to consider. A great round 85 years ago, and with today’s loadings, better than anything else out there.

    1. Superauto,

      Thanks for reading. My son is a military intelligence officer and the proud owner of a Nvoak custom .45. I am presently working up a .38 Super Commander type for him. He asked if I could find a good .38 Super — watch for more on this in these pages, but will be a few weeks to a few months as we complete the project.

  2. As an afterthought on the 44-40 WCF, many of those were of the “Ballon head” design to allow one to cram much more black powder into them. A recipe for disaster when switching to smokeless powders. No thick case web to withstand the higher pressures that smokeless powder led to case failures as my uncle discovered.

  3. How about the .327 Federal Magnium? Available (or was) in the 3″ S&W J frame 632 Power Port, with Performance Center DNA, 6 shots over 5 for 38 Special yet close to 357 Magnium ballistics. My personal carry, a 7.62 X 25mm in a Wheelgun. I refinished the satin stainless finish To match my Colt Ultimate SS Python. The Power Port gives the impression you’re firing a .40 S&W out of it. Ruger had the LCR chambered for it as well as a Blackhawk. One of the GP’s also. I rechambered a 6″ Bisley Single Six in .32 H&R Magnium to .327, a very accurate and hard hitting combo. I’ve always loved the .32, very underrated. The Colt 1847 .31 Caliber is the gun that really “Won the West”, miners always had a pocket “hideout” gun and when you couldn’t wear you holstered Colt SAA into town, guess what discretly rode in the pocket!

  4. WOW… the best article you have had. Really enjoyed. Objective and informed. I wish he had not mentioned the Tokarev [which I carry] as it is a hidden secret and would like to keep it that way. What a wonderful gun if modern manufacturers would produce in that caliber… or even redo the gun. BUT AGAIN GREAT ARTICLE.

  5. The e-mail address posted for a copy of the file on “compare cartridges and caliber ballistics” doesn’t seem to work even from a computer. Is there a different e-mail address one might use to get this information, I would very much appreciate the information.


    Rick (please note the “r” in front of the “m”.

    1. Rick, remove all the blanks and you have a working email address. I have received 5 or so requests already today from my post on Sept. 8


  6. You said a lot in a short read. I agree that tokarev cartridge would make a good 1911. I think it is a great .30 cal cartridge. What most people fail to see is that both it and it’s parent cartridge were and still are true .30 cal magnum cartridge’s. The borchardt broomhandle should be considered one of the first center fire magnums. The bottle neck lager than caliber case makes it that. Would love to see more hand guns/pistols built and chambered for the 7.62×25. Hornady make 90 grain ftp .309 bullet just for this cartrige. Loaded to 1650 to 1700 f.p.s. is very acurate and effective as any 9mm and close to .357 magnum range ballistics. Again I love this cartridge.

    1. I’m sure many people’s pet calibers didn’t get mentioned.

      357 SIG has seen even less adoption than 40 S&W. At least with 40 S&W you have some historical significance due to its early adoption by the FBI (and following spike in interest from local law enforcement) as “the answer” to the perceived limitations of 9mm Luger.

      With 357 SIG you get the same “solution in search of a problem” that 40 S&W has become with the addition of higher over-penetration risks. It is, after all, essentially a 9mm Luger bullet with more powder behind it.

  7. I wish to complement Bob on a great article, giving us a lot of history on the many handgun cartridges/calibers. In today’s market, there are so many handgun calibers, along with the many matching handguns. I have owned Ruger Blackhawk revolvers for over 50 years (with the same gun)! Recently, I add to my original 357 Mag 6.5″Ruger Blackhawk – I purchased another Ruger, a convertible 45 ACP/LC Flattop. This shoots both the 45 ACP and the 45 LC. My Ruger 357 Mag also shoots 38 Special ammo as well.

    As a result of this long ownership, and along with a few friends with many calibers, I created a few years ago a Microsoft Excel file with some 18 handgun calibers and 11 rifle calibers. Since I own only handguns, there are over 350 entries for the handgun ammo, and only 42 for the rifle calibers. Each entry consists of the ammo brand, its ballistics, an active link as to where to purchase online, and the cost, as well as cost per cartridge, and sometime a picture of the ammo. Each caliber (not entry) also has a web link that describes the caliber, its history, and some ballistics info, like the exact bullet diameter.

    For those interested in either simply wishing to compare cartridges and caliber ballistics, or would like to use the file to make smart choices online, please email me and I will send you a copy of my current file. There is no cost for this; this file is free. I already have about a dozen people to whom I send out the latest copy each month. I update this file about twice a week, and try to keep pricing and availability up-to-date. I can be reached at vlavalle@ ix.netcom .com. Please note that this file is NOT for smart phones, and is barely doable on a tablet.

    This file will help you tremendously when examining the complex ballistics of today. If you simply want to purchase the lowest cost ammo, that is easy to see readily from the info in the file. Of course, not every cartridge manufacturer is listed for all calibers, but there is a very rich list in the handgun section. Or, if you want to get the most powerful ammo for the buck, you can extract that easily as well, since price per cartridge is given on each entry, as well as its ballistics (muzzle velocity and muzzle power).

    The third main reason I put this together was partly due to this forum and discussions here in the CheaperThanDirt forum. There has been a lot of discussion here about ‘power’ and ‘stopping power’. I have entered into this a few times, but my Excel file speaks by itself. So, this list will settle any issue about cartridge power (9mm vs 45 ACP for instance), and may even help you decide what handgun to buy, at least caliber wise (not manufacturer wise). You will be amazed at the power ranges of some of the calibers, and this for some will be please you and for others perhaps not so much (like the 9mm advocate group) to see that larger in caliber almost always means more power when comparing equals (like non +P vs. non +P, or +P vs. +P). So, this was the third reason I put this file together, which goes well beyond the handgun ammo I use.

    Lastly, which Bob touched on here in this article, there is also a prolifera of bullets available today, as well as the many calibers. Some are made to penetrate deeply (for that caliber), and some to open up fast and do not penetrate far, such as in self defense so that the bullet does not go through walls and hit someone else. Some are just for plinking (you don’t care what the bullet is), and some are for taking done game. Some are lead, and some are lead free! So, the type of bullet is also listed in each entry, and many cartridges are pictured, showing the bullet are pictured in the file for that given cartridge as well. The type of bullet desired can making finding the right or desried ammo a difficult task, so this file helps here as well.

    Vincent (09-08-2016)

  8. Have stuck with the .45 acp for most my adult life as a carry gun ,a 9mm mak as a backup and a 32 naa auto in my pocket holster last ditch carry gun these 3 in combo especialy when combined with the 7.62×25 very flat shooting and ballistic vest beating tok i carry in all places i know will have large crowds and are possible active shooter zones and possible terror targets in my double shoulder holster with my colt officers .45 will get the job done in most any situation i may encounter that god is willing to let me survive .As far as hunting rounds for north america the 44 mag and 45 colt loaded hvy for my ruger blachawk will take any game walking the lower 48 .Anything more is overkill anything less is not enough gun for medium to large game in a handgun including the .357 mag not enough gun for big whitetails or bigger game in my opinion. I stuck with what has always worked .

    1. Most likely the lack of significant adoption by police or the military combined with higher cost and fewer pistol options vs 9mm/45 ACP.

      Even 40 S&W has had a rough road, despite early adoption by the FBI, broad support by major pistol manufacturers, and substantial interest from police departments across the country.

    2. I’m sure that is a large part of it. Unless you’re willing to shell out the cash for a competition grade race gun the available options are few. I have considered acquiring an EAA Witness in .38 Super but the reputation for the cartridge being troublesome in double stack mags has made me leery of the platform. This reputation seems at odds with the fact that it is popular in competition circles but I guess if you have the funds to spend on smoothing out the kinks just about anything can be made to work. I have always thought that a Commander size 1911 with 10 rounds of .38 Super in a single stack mag would make a nice EDC gun. It’s too bad no one is making one so that I could put that combo to the test.

  9. The profusion of calibers offered today’s shooters can be a bewildering array of many shapes and sizes. While it is fun and interesting to try many of the seemingly “new” rounds that are available, I generally keep my staple pieces in 9×19, .45ACP, and .357Magnum. That said, I do get a bang (no pun intended) out of .357SIG, .44Magnum, .45Colt, and 5.7×28, and I have representative handguns in these chamberings as well as the standard calibers.

  10. It’s easy to get so absorbed in the differences between [caliber you prefer] and [caliber someone else prefers] that we lose sight of the big picture. With quality ammunition in basically any handgun caliber 38 Special/9mm Luger and up, what matters most is getting multiple, accurate hits on target quickly.

    You’re not going to get reliable one-shot stopping power in anything that’s comfortable to shoot from a pistol or revolver.

    1. Adam, I will disagree with you on your point that pistol cartridges do not have one shot stopping power. I was mule deer hunting in CO 40+ years ago, carrying my custom 7X57 mountain rifle, with a 6″ S&W Model 19 in a shoulder holster. I was clambering up some steep rocks when at the crest, I saw a very nice buck no more than 40′ away. I was balanced in such a way there was no way to get my rifle unslung so I pulled out the S&W M19, took one shot, and that muley never took a step, it just dropped where it stood.

    2. You missed the key word – “reliable.”

      “One time I shot a deer and…” doesn’t equate to reliability. Hunters have taken deer with a single shot from calibers as small as .22 LR.

      If anything, you reinforce my point that marksmanship matters far more than choice of caliber.

  11. Interestingly a .38Spl/.357Mag is closer in bore to .36 caliber than .38 caliber. It’s always been my thought (whether true or not!) that the 38Spl. is the “spiritual” descendant to .36 “Navy”.

    1. James,

      You are pretty well correct. Most of the early generation of cartridges for handguns were less powerful than the .36 Navy. The .38 Short Colt and .38 Smith and Wesson are in the 700 fps category and the .38 Long Colt not much better. Only the .45 Colt was as powerful as the .44 Army. Later we had much better blackpowder cartridges.
      Thanks for reading.

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