Small Handgun Calibers

How many of you carry a back-up gun? Maybe you have a small pocket pistol for pests and plinking. I am pretty sure 95 percent of people I know who own guns have at least one .22 LR in their collection. When we talk about small handgun calibers, we mean .380 ACP and smaller. I am not going to get into an argument about the lethality of small handgun calibers, but it is widely believed that .380 ACP is the smallest caliber you should choose for a self-defense weapon. However, in my humble opinion, anything is better than nothing and I am not afraid to admit that I have chosen to carry a .22 Long Rifle revolver when I had no other choice. I previously owned a .25 ACP Jennings. It was a piece of unreliable crap—the gun, not the caliber. I also own a .22 WMR revolver, which I love so much I actually have a tattoo of it.

Small caliber handguns can be excellent back-up weapons, mouse killers, varmint hunters, and obviously perfect for plinking and practice. The most common small handgun calibers are the .380 ACP, .22 LR, .22 WMR, .25 ACP and .32 ACP.

.32 ACP

John Browning developed the centerfire .32 ACP in 1899. It was Browning’s first successful pistol round. Originally made by FN, it was a popular law enforcement caliber and used in WWI. .32 ACP is an effective round on small game. The Kel-Tec P32 is a popular handgun in this caliber, but my personal favorite is the CZ Skorpion. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated with a .32 ACP ultimately resulting in War World I.

Beretta claims that their model 3032 Tomcat with a tip-up barrel will provide the same firepower as a .380 ACP when loaded with a 60-grain, hollow point bullet. For those who cannot operate the slide of a traditional semi-automatic pistol, many recommend semi-automatic pistols with a tip-up barrel.

Designed for deep concealment and back up to law enforcement, the Kel-Tec’s P-32 is one of the lightest .32 ACP pistols on the market. The Kel-Tec P-32 is also the most affordable of the .32 ACP pistols that Cheaper Than Dirt! carries, all being under $300.

The NAA Guardian and the Bersa Thunder are also compact pocket pistols chambered for .32 ACP.

.25 ACP

Some will argue with you that the .25 ACP is the most useless round ever developed, but I beg to differ. I’ve successfully knocked down a bunch of beer cans with a .25 ACP, so for plinking the .25 ACP does its job. This little guy is also a John Browning design. Like the .32 ACP, the .25 ACP, also a centerfire round, originally made for FN’s Baby Browning that came out in 1908. Colt made a gun chambered for .25 ACP called the 25 Vest Pocket Automatic Pistol. The .25 ACP is notorious for inadequate stopping power, penetration, and energy. A hollow point bullet loaded with the proper grains can be deadly, however. Taurus makes a tip-up barrel model 25 chambered in .25 ACP in a wide variety of models. More expensive than the Taurus is the Beretta Model 21 Bobcat, also with a tip-up barrel design.

.22 Long Rifle

The .22 Long Rifle is by far the most common caliber in the world. The J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company first made the rimfire round in 1887. There is conflicting information on which company made the very first gun chambered for .22 LR. Its design originated from the Flobert BB Cap in 1845 and it is a .22 Long case with a .22 Extra Long bullet. Cartridges of the World 10th Edition says, “The 22 Long Rifle has become the most accurate and highly developed sporting cartridge in existence.” (p 434) Many people will tell you that a .22LR will do nothing for you as a self-defense cartridge, but that it is an ideal varmint-hunting round. It is a myth that the .22 LR will not kill someone. There are reports of people dying from gunshot wounds inflicted by a .22 LR, “humans shot with the 22 Long Rifle often show little immediate distress, survive without complications for several days, then die very suddenly.” (Cartridges of the World 10th Edition p 437) There are literally hundreds of choices in handguns chambered for .22 LR.

.22 WMR

The .22 WMR or .22 Magnum, like the .22 LR, is a rimfire round. Developed by Winchester in 1959, it is the most powerful rimfire caliber in existence. This round offers more penetration power than the .22 LR. And of course, there is the ever-allusive Kel-Tec PMR-30 chambered for .22 WMR.

.380 ACP

Out of all the small handgun calibers, the .380 ACP is by far the most popular for self-defense. John Browning developed it in 1908. Colt made a gun for the round that many militaries around the world adopted. Due to the renewed popularity in pocket guns, the .380 ACP is really making a comeback. If you want a pocket pistol chambered in .380 ACP, you have even more choices than the .22 LR. From everything to the $200 range for the MasterPiece Arms and Taurus to over $700 for Beretta and the Walther PPK/S. One of my favorites in this class is the SIG Sauer P238.

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 (5)

  1. I recently investigated a killing where the victim was shot twice with a .22 LR, once in the torso. He made it 100 feet at a dead run (sorry)collapsed and died. The .22 LR has developed an almost mystical reputation for killing almost like a curse. You’re hit and then you die later from the “bullet bouncing around inside.” It is instead just like every other round, a solid hit will usually be fatal. Hitting an extremity will not. It’s terminal ballistics, not magic.

  2. Hey Suzanne you did a kick-ass article on this topic!
    As any real gun pro knows no matter what the caliber if you hit the ever moving sweet spot, a BB will kill you.
    I have been shot with a .25 on a traffic stop and it didn’t stop me (thank God it went through my hand).

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