When it comes to choosing the best caliber and bullet type for a defensive handgun, everyone has an opinion.
And for every opinion, there is some anecdotal evidence to both support it and to dispute it. Some swear there is no other caliber than a .45 ACP worth carrying, while others point out that even large farm animals are dispatched with nothing more than a .22 LR. I was at the scene of a homicide years ago where one .380 ACP to the head was instantly effective. Does that mean the .380 is the best? Probably not. So, how do you choose?
Many people don’t stop to think about ammo. They’re choosing their carry guns primarily on the basis of carry convenience. If the gun is lightweight, slim and fits in the palm of your hand, then it’s considered an excellent carry gun. Never mind if you can shoot it well or if the cartridge is effective.
“It’s better than nothing,” is the typical justification. While that might be true, it’s not much of a self-defense strategy.
I’ve carried guns in .380, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm, 10mm, .45 ACP, .45 Colt and .44 Special. While I’ve shot guns in .40 S&W, I’ve never carried one. Whenever I wanted something bigger than a 9mm in a semiauto, instead of buying a new gun, I opted for a .45 ACP that I already owned. I’ve never tried the .327 Federal either, but there are those who recommend it. I don’t believe, however, they’re all created equal.
There are some who point to advances in ammunition design who will have you believe one caliber is just as good as another. Call me “old school,” but I still lean toward the idea that bigger is better.
“SHOT PLACEMENT IS WHAT COUNTS.”
I won’t argue against that. But to me, a big, heavy bullet placed well should have an advantage over a small bullet of the same design hitting the same place.
But that brings us to the issue of recoil.
TOO HOT TO HANDLE
I have problems with the idea that a handgun firing a small, light bullet makes it easier to obtain good hits and is, therefore, better for defensive carry. I have a .380 pocket pistol typical of what people are buying these days. But I find it snappier and harder to shoot than my subcompact 9mm. I shoot my compact .45 ACP better, too. So, it’s the size of the gun and your ability to get a good grip on it that make good hits possible more so than caliber.
Okay; you’re happy with the size and caliber of your handgun, and you can handle the recoil. But what are you going to choose for ammo?
Your ammo must feed reliably. That’s not a problem with revolvers, and today’s semiautos are more reliable than ever. But some very good ammo can be a bit stubborn to feed, even in very good guns. Unfortunately, the only way to tell if a particular load is reliable is to shoot a quantity of it through your gun … but that can get expensive.
Full-metal-jacket bullets usually feed reliably, and lots of people load their guns with it—simply because it’s less expensive. But FMJ ammo doesn’t expand, often over-penetrates and heightens the chance of ricochet. However, where a hollow point in a weak cartridge such as a .380 might not penetrate enough to reach the vitals—especially through thick clothing—an FMJ round might be more effective.
Hollow points are supposed to expand, creating a larger wound channel and expending all their energy in the target. But they might not penetrate some barriers well, or they could clog and refuse to expand through others. Hollow points depend on velocity to expand, but velocity from your short-barreled carry gun might be low enough to make hollow point expansion iffy.
GOING HIGH TECH
Ammo companies are offering new solutions for past deficiencies in bullet design. Now, there are loads designed specifically for short-barreled guns that are purported to be more effective while reducing overpenetration, recoil and muzzle flash.
They go about achieving this in different ways. Hornady’s Critical Defense uses a polymer tip that forces the bullet to expand reliably without clogging. Federal Guard Dog has a fully enclosed bullet nose with a polymer portion inside. Telos from G2 Research uses a pure copper, segmented hollow point designed to fragment into six pieces on impact. Ruger ARX by Polycase uses a nonexpanding bullet of copper and polymer resin. It has corkscrew grooves designed to displace fluid for greater wound potential.
Many of these new loads feature light-for-caliber bullets that don’t shoot to the same point of impact. The sights on most carry guns are not adjustable and are regulated for standardweight bullets. You’ll have to determine through practice if there’s enough of a difference to be critical.
IF NOTHING ELSE…
Regardless of the gun and cartridge you choose, take the issue of ammo seriously. Buying whatever is on sale shouldn’t be the biggest factor. Know that it’s reliable and where it hits. As for me, I have great hope for the new designs. But I’ll probably stick with my big, heavy, slow bullets—at least for now.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2017 print issue of Gun World.