5 Most Underrated Handgun Calibers

large pile of assorted handgun ammunition

As any of us who attended high school know, some people (or things) are more popular than others.

Sometimes there is a solid reason, other times the popularity is vexingly not related to reality.

This is just as true with calibers as it is with hairstyles or people.

Here is my abbreviated list of five very capable handgun calibers that just don’t make the cut with a lot of the shooting crowd.

There are five handgun calibers that I feel are not given their proper due in the revolver realm and two in the pistol world. Let’s go over them.

.41 Special 

When the power of .44 Magnum is not needed, this caliber really shines.

It allows for a smaller form-factor on the revolver and the recoil is greatly diminished, while still creating significant wound capacity.  

To put that more plainly, any revolver frame that can handle .357 Magnum, could handle this cartridge.

I have not seen any J-Frames chambered in it, but theoretically, it could be done.

Charter Arms has a small-frame revolver (the Pug) chambered for this cartridge. It offers five rounds and a 2.5-inch barrel.

I would think a three-inch barrel would have been better, but concealment was probably the deciding factor.

It normally is seen in a medium frame, which is still a smaller format than most .44 Magnums.  

The .41 Special is certainly a step down at 1,200 fps and 600 ft/lbs of energy, but is pushing 10mm energy and certainly plenty for self-defense or deer hunting with a pistol.

In comparison, a (light) 240-grain .44 Magnum provides 1,180 fps and 740 ft/lbs of energy and a heavier (270-grain) max load can produce 1,450 fps and 1,260 ft/lbs.

The recoil penalty is STOUT with these Magnum loads and would destroy either the gun or your wrist if shot from a 23-ounce Charter Arms Pug.

Charter Arms Pug Revolver

.45 Colt

The .45 Colt is extremely useful in its versatility. It can be used at bunny-fart velocities for cowboy-action shooting.

This might look like a 255-grain projectile running 725 fps and just under 300 ft/lbs of energy.

Not exactly a defense round, as it is only in the .380 ACP power range, but great for fast shooting of paper or steel targets in SASS events.

There are standard loads that balance recoil with damage potential and are potentially good choices for self-defense.

Using the same 255-grain bullet, this would run things up into the 950 fps and 500 ft/lbs of energy range.

This provides better energy than almost all 9mm defense loads and in theory, creates a wider wound channel.

At the top end of the envelope are high-pressure loads that are great for deer hunting and passible for use as defense rounds against cougar or bear encounters.

Stepping up to a heavier projectile is better here, but to keep with the pattern, the numbers for a 255-grain bullet can be 1,250 fps or higher and energy at or above 900 ft/lbs.

This makes for stiff recoil, but serious effects downrange. Using a 360-grain projectile at 1,200 fps provides 1,160 ft/lbs of energy, significantly beyond most 10mm options.

These loads should only be used in a gun capable of handling these loads.

The Ruger Redhawk revolvers come to mind and five or more inches of barrel will be needed to capitalize on the extra effect.

.45 Colt Ammo Box

.327 Federal

This round has only been around since 2007, so perhaps it will find a solid home as time goes on.

The parent case .32 H&R has a pressure limit of 21,000 psi, the .327 Federal Magnum is able to reach 45,000 psi and push a .312-inch diameter bullet much harder.

It does underperform in comparison to its bigger brother the .357 Magnum, but that is missing the point and a large buying demographic.

This round produces two levels of power in a pistol.

The first is roughly in the 1,300 fps range with about 425 ft/lbs of energy with a 115-grain projectile.

The important part is, it does so with lower felt recoil than standard .38 Special rounds from an equal weight gun.

The higher-power options run close to 1,600 fps and over 600 ft/lbs of energy.

This has quite stout recoil and misses that important demographic of people wanting a small gun with strong damage potential, without a strong recoil penalty.

Henry has perhaps captured the true best use of the round in a series of lever-action carbines.

They tame the recoil and provide velocity and energies exceeding the higher numbers above.

.327 Federal Magnum Ammo Box

.38 Super     

This cartridge is an evolution of the .38 ACP round to develop more power and offer an alternative to .45 ACP in semi-auto police options.

It gained a foothold in 1911’s until the .357 came on the scene and gave police more power in the familiarity of a revolver platform.

This ended the adoption of the round in law enforcement and it languished in the U.S. market.

It has always been popular in South America, as many countries ban ownership of “military cartridges,” which excludes citizen ownership of 9mm Parabellum and .45 ACP.

This (and IPSC shooters looking for an edge) has lead to further developments to overcome issues like rim lock, by greatly reducing the rim size in the .38 Super Comp and developing strong performing hollow-point bullets capable of withstanding the high velocities the round is capable of.

In a 1911, this round increases capacity by two rounds over .45 ACP and offers up to 18 rounds in a double-stack application.

With modern powders, this cartridge is factory-loaded (124-grain) to 1,400 fps and 540 ft/lbs of energy in the +P Comp version.

For those who love a flat-shooting pistol cartridge, this is a great option.

In the self-defense role, it has similar recoil to .45 ACP, but in a competition where a compensator is used, the harshness of the round is greatly diminished.

The high-pressure gasses work well with a compensator where lower-pressure rounds (.45 ACP) don’t, which makes for a much easier time shooting major, while having more rounds on-board too.

.38 Super Ammo Box

.357 SIG

Perhaps the best thing that came from the .40 S&W, the .357 SIG is essentially a necked-down version of the .40 S&W that seeks to recreate a .357 Magnum in a semi-automatic platform.

It succeeds with the lighter projectile loadings. Standard light bullets (125-grain) are commonly seen at 1,450 fps and 580 ft/lbs of muzzle energy.

Some people load as high as 160-grain bullets, but much more common is the 147-grain load.

This provides +/- 1,200 fps and 470 ftt/lbs of muzzle energy.

This is obviously not in the .357 Magnum range, but the round was designed for the 115 to 125-grain class bullets.

Some people also chase maximum velocity with (.380 ACP) 90-grain projectiles (1,900 fps and 720 ft/lbs at the muzzle), but the bullet construction is not designed for this and most often results in impact detonation.

This means almost no penetration. I would not suggest such a loading unless distant paper was the target. 

The original specification was for .357-inch diameter bullets, but the market demanded a change to .355-inch bullets and that is where we are today.

It simplifies loading, in that most people already have piles of 9mm projectiles (.355”), although some care should be observed in terminal performance, as this may exceed the velocity/expansion parameters of some bullets.

I will admit I am biased against .40 S&W.

Once the reloading component shortage lifts, I am very likely to buy a replacement barrel for my GLOCK 22 and turn it into a .357 SIG platform.

It will simplify my reloading, as I can use powder and projectiles I already have for 9mm and get better performance, if in a slightly louder manner.

.357 SIG Ammo Box handgun calibers

Conclusion: Most Underrated Handgun Calibers

Some cartridges on this list have been around longer than others, but for one reason or another, they have all dropped in popularity.

But this does not mean they aren’t amazing choices that will serve you well.

If you choose any of the handgun calibers on this list, you are sure to love it.

What handgun calibers do you feel are underrated? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author:

John Bibby

John Bibby is an American gun writer who had the misfortune of being born in the occupied territory of New Jersey. His parents moved to the much freer state of Florida when he was 3. This allowed his father start teaching him about shooting prior to age 6. By age 8, he was regularly shooting with his father and parents of his friends. At age 12, despite the strong suggestions that he shouldn’t, he shot a neighbor’s “elephant rifle."

The rifle was a .375 H&H Magnum and, as such, precautions were taken. He had to shoot from prone. The recoil-induced, grass-stained shirt was a badge of honor. Shooting has been a constant in his life, as has cooking.

He is an (early) retired Executive Chef. Food is his other great passion. Currently, he is a semi-frequent 3-Gun competitor, with a solid weak spot on shotgun stages. When his business and travel schedule allow, you will often find him, ringing steel out well past 600 yards. In order to be consistent while going long, reloading is fairly mandatory. The 3-Gun matches work his progressive presses with volume work. Precision loading for long-range shooting and whitetail hunting keeps the single-stage presses from getting dusty.
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. What it all comes down to is this…..what ever caliber you have at the time you need it is better than anything superior that you don’t happen to have at the time you need it. I’ll take a 1 shot 22 short over being unarmed when push comes to shove if nothing else is handy.

  2. Wayne, I can explain the lack of interest in the .40 S&W. It may sound sexist, but this caliber is mostly a favorite of men only… the problem is that companies LOVE to try to see who can stuff the round into the most compact, small handed system that they can. Many women find the shock to the wrist from the .40 (I said many. Not all.) to be a bit much, but it seems that every danged company wants to put the caliber into pistols that won’t fit in a grown man’s hands no matter how small his hands are… the M&P Shield Compact is the perfect example. Their 9mm chasis is larger than the chasis for their .40 S&W. Concealability is one thing… a nuisance to grip a gun is another. When you’re stuck with only 2-3 full sized options, with a forceful round, a round loses popularity amongst those who have the wrists and forearms for the round… but in a double handed hold feel as if they are squeezing the trigger of a toy.

  3. The 357 Sig is a great cartridge. It is also a little more of a challenge to reload. The cases must be spotlessly clean on the inside so they are free of any lube or powder residue. The problem is the short neck does not provide a lot of surface area to hold the bullet in place so pushback while cycling into the chamber can be a problem. The mouth of the case can not be expanded to help seat the bullet. Just chamfer the mouth a little on the inside to help shoehorn the bullet in.

    I like the 40SW a lot also. However I also shoot a revolver in 460SW regularly and the recoil of the 40SW is not objectionable to me even in a compact like the Sig 239. I agree that the cartridge is not suitable for everyone.

  4. Complete nick pick here . . . fully admit it . . . but I believe the .357 Sig actually came from the 10mm and not the .40 S&W. One could argue the platforms are the same (and I’d agree), but the round itself I believe is a necked 10mm. The .40 doesn’t have enough brass to make a .357 Sig (insert your favorite “brass” joke here).

    Great article, though. I have them all save for the .327 Mag, and that’s next on my list.

  5. All 5 are under rated, and probably unappreciated, it’s true. But the caliber that I believe is the epitome of under ratings and most likely the best overall performer is IMHO the 7.62 x 25 Tokarev, (30 Mauser). Available in 85 & 90 grain FMJs and JHPs, can be loaded from 1300 to 1700 fps, depending on the firearm used. An awesome defensive round.

  6. .22LR has been claimed to have killed more than any other. Initially classified as a lees lethal riot control weapon in Ruger 10/22 format for the IDF, experience in use lead to reassessment testing after which a lethal weapon rating was given.
    Granny, with .22WMR 30+1 semi-auto, could be a match for Mongo.

  7. A nice round that dropped in popularity is the .41 action express, the ballistics warrant further scrutiny and a possible resurgence in everyday useage.

  8. Clint,
    Can you explain the dislike of the 40 S&W round???
    I have always been a bolt and revolver man myself, but when I first shot my Ruger SR40c I loved it. I like having the power of a .357 Mag in a semi-automatic.

  9. got my deer couple yr. ago w/103 yr. old S&W revolver chambered in 45 LC. I shot a jacketed hollow point, straight on neck shot & found bullet under hide on back of deer’s neck

  10. Did you mean .44 special or .41 special? Cause I have never heard of a .41 special despite being a big fan of .41 Mag.

  11. I have been a fan of the .357 sig for many years. My current edc is a G32 and like the umpff it offers. I’ve reloaded a few thousand with no issues at all !!
    Happy Shooting !

  12. .44 Special makes a great home defense gun and a sidearm for hunters. A 4 inch barrel is useful for both but I know folk love snubbies. Not me. Enjoy your comments. Thanks 😊

  13. I have a Glock 19 9mm and a Springfield XD .357 SIG but I carry a Kimber Pro Carry II .45.

    In response to Paul E Simpson.
    I’m curious about the cost of ammo comment you made? I can’t see carrying or not carrying a certain caliber for cost reasons.

    In response to the article.
    If I had known more about the .357 SIG, I would have bought mine in a shorter barrel length and carry it instead of my .45. I love the performance of the .357 SIG and I can’t believe it isn’t a LOT more popular. That would help bring down the cost of .357 SIG ammo too. I’m thrilled with the Springfield XD “round in chamber” indicator and the external “hammer cocked” indicator. Those features in conjunction with the ballistics of the .357 SIG make it a win, win, win for me.

    My Springfield XD .357 SIG is my favorite handgun. It is the tactical 5″ and I may still consider buying another in 4″ to carry.

    To each his (or her) own but these are my two cents.

  14. I happen to Like the .40 S/W, only slightly more felt recoil than a 9mm w/ down range ballistics nearly identical to a .45qcp. The .380acp is a good defensive range round also. used for self defense one needs to consider the risk of over-penitration which is true with most of the above rounds.

    All are good rounds for target shooting and hunting various size game.

  15. I know you will be bombarded with people suggesting their favorite calibers that you did not cover, but here is mine. The venerable Tokarev (7.62×25) round is essentially a 32 magnum, and has energy on a par with the 327 Federal cartridge, and shoots from a semi-auto pistol platform. The stats I have on it are 85 grain projectile at 1560 fps, for a muzzle energy of 456 ft-lbs.

  16. I’m confused, are you suggesting the wild cat 41 Special. I think you are referring to the 41 Rem Mag. If so yes it is a great round at 0.410 vs the 44 Mag at 0.430. It great for deer and black bear in Michigan but over kill and limited rounds for carry. Yes to the 327 and even 32 H&R. Not a fan of the 357 Sig, fewer round the the 9mm lugar and less energy than 40 S&W or 10mm.

    As for GVANCE13 comments, 9 lugar vs 357 Sig. The Sig is about 200 fps faster with the same bullet and drops 3 inches less at 100 yards and 1 inch less at 50 yards with a 25 yard zero. Who care about a flatter trajectory.

  17. I have long been a fan of .327 Federal; and I share the authors dislike of .40 S&W. In my experience, it lacks the penetration of 9mm, and it lacks the inherently large wound potential of .45 acp. And that is why 10mm is the best readily available pistol cartridge.

  18. So the 41 Special, doesn’t seem to ring ANY bells …..did you mean the 41 Rem Mag???? I have a Henry 41 Mag rifle and love it, better than the 44 Mag in a lot of respects including cost of ammo and recoil! The 327 Fed Mag is a great cartridge, all the attributes of a Mag without the recoil, good revolver for kids or women to carry and start with. The robust Ruger in 32 H&R Mag can be loaded to the 327 Mag and still be safe to use. I also have a 30 Carbine Ruger Blackhawk that can stand up to fps and heavy bullet reloads and produce some noticeable and safe results for a light hunter cartridge!

  19. I had a Ruger 41 mag single action that I regularly down loaded to 41 Special charges (in magnum cases). It made for a very nice shooting weapon and downed everything I shot with it including deer. I liked it even better than my 357 mag Ruger and Security Six. I still have the latter 2.

  20. Agree that there are a number of handgun cartridges that are “forgotten”, but should have included the 7.62×25. The 7,62×25 is more like a .30 Carbine handgun in general performance than a “pistol”. If a company like RUGER came out with a 7.62×25 handgun, think of how the public would realize what a great cartridge it is. Match it with a PDW version, (not a PPs43), and think how a .308/110 gr HP at ~1500 fps would be received by the public. Just to see how some folks would go into a panic would be great.

    As to the other cartridges:

    .38 Super – Old Timers found that the 1911/.38 Super was inaccurate because it headspace off the rim. When chambers were re cut to headspace off the case mouth, like a .45, accuracy improved.

    .44 Special – The newer 5 shot revolvers in .44 mag work much better with a “lite” .44 mag or a .44 Special +P loading. If you don’t handload, a .44 Special is ideal for practice at the range. Bonus – A 240 gr SWC bullet at 900 – 1000 fps will handle about any threat in the lower 48 states.

  21. Stephen Hunter wrote an article about the .38 Super in American Rifleman. According to him, Colt sold the cartridge for outdoorsmen, not police.
    Looking forward to buying a .327 Henry!

  22. I give my Charter Arms Mag Pug XL in .41 Rem Mag a big kiss every morning, before I drop it into the front pocket of my pants.
    I am too old to run or fight, but if I encounter a wild hog having a bad morning, I want to be the one that works away…

  23. I could not agree with you more on the .357 sig and the .38 super, both being far superior to the 9mm. Faster, flater trajectory for longer shots with more stopping power.

    And yes I’ve heard all about what if I had 9mm ++p rounds, all guns can not shot plus P rounds and you can still load the .357 sig and the .38 super faster. The 9mm lovers need to buy a reloading manual before getting all bent out of shape here.

    Back to the author’s list, I would drop one of the three for the .44 special, once considered the world’s most powerful handgun cartridge. I’ve used a .44 special Charter Arms Bulldog for years on hunting and fishing trips, great gun and great caliber if you would rather not shot the .44 Magnum.

  24. In reference to changing barrels to accommodate .357 SIG in a Glock 22, according to Hickok 45, only dedicated mags should be used in defensive handguns as feeding is sometimes questionable. Just thought you should know. My carry gun is a Glock 32. I have considered carrying a Glock 19 because of the cost of .357 SIG ammo.

  25. I know I’ll get hate mail for this, but I believe you left out two other related cartridges, the 32 S&W Long and the 32 H&R Magnum. I know both of these may be fired in a revolver chambered for 327 Federal, but I think there is a market for smaller, somewhat lighter snub nose revolvers in the H&R and S&W calibers. Several manufacturers have toyed with this in the past, but none have stayed with it for very long. I think that if the pressure limits for both cases were raised to the mid to high 20,000 psi range, we would have a viable, lower recoil, self defense package.

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