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Best Caliber Handgun for Self-Defense

July 20, 2010 Defensive Tactics, Firearm and Caliber Advice No Comments

Question:  I am wondering what would be the most effective handgun to carry in an apocalyptic, doomsday type scenario. I’ve read the .45 has the best knockdown power, the .357 has the best metal penetrating ability, and the 9mm would be the most common ammunition around.  I’m fairly sure that each of the above calibers would find it’s place..it’s just that I can’t afford all three.  Which one might you choose in a doomsday situation?  I’ve read the Army in Iraq has gone to or is going to go from 9mm to .45.  This has stemmed from sometimes having to fire several shots to stop or kill the target.  The .357 would seem to be handy if one had to shoot a target through metal.  Can one find a load, (powder grains), or bullet configuration,(hollow point, etc.), in a .357 caliber that would give enhanced metal piercing ability along with the stopping power of a .45 caliber?  I’m just a little confused and would appreciate any advice to assist in my making a good choice.

Answer: In the scenario you describe, simply having a firearm and lots of ammo is the most essential thing.  I typically do not get into caliber discussions since they are mostly ‘religious’ in nature.  Some people have the opinion that the .45 caliber is the only way to go.  Others are more open minded about the effectiveness of calibers like the 9mm.

To specifically answer your questions, I’ll try and give you some background on the various calibers and what considerations are involved.  First, I would probably take the .357 off the table completely.  You did not say if you were thinking about .357 in a revolver or semi-auto, but the answer is still the same.  A semi-auto pistol chambered for a .357 SIG cartridge is a handful in terms of recoil.  Many people have a difficult time shooting the caliber accurately.  The bullet size and weight is roughly comparable to the 9mm.  The 9mm is approximately .354 caliber, so the bullet diameters are essentially the same.  The weight of both projectiles in terms of grains is approximately 124 gr.  The different is the pressure that the cartridges are loaded to.  A .357 SIG at 124 gr. has a muzzle velocity of approximately 1450 fps.  The 9mm with the same bullet weight travels approximately 1150 -1200 fps.  The additional velocity is what gives the .357 its greater penetrating power.

In my opinion, having fired both calibers extensively, you are better off with the 9mm as it is more controllable, ammunition is much more available and in a doomsday scenario such as the one you describe, 9mm ammo will be much easier to come by.

The .45 ACP also has a proven record of being effective against a human target.  Typically, the .45 uses a 230 gr. bullet and has a muzzle velocity of approximately 850 fps.  It is a bigger bullet, but it is traveling much more slowly.  What make it effective is that it makes a pretty large hole in whatever it hits.  Larger hole = more damage to tissue and more bleeding.

However, if you compare the relative energy delivered, the average 9mm 124 gr. bullet delivers about 382 ft/lbs of energy vs. 352 ft/lbs of energy for the .45 caliber 230 gr. bullet.  In terms of energy delivered, the difference between the two is pretty much a wash.  The penetration of the 9mm will likely be better since it has a higher velocity.  Better penetration=more damage to important organs that are deeper in the body.

The 9mm is very controllable as it does not have as much felt recoil as the .45 ACP.  For some people this is an issue.  In my view, the biggest factor in gunshot wound effectiveness is shot placement.  As you can see, as in so many other things, caliber selection is a series of trade-offs.  Each caliber has some advantages.  You need to decide which are more important to you.

In terms of the Army switching calibers in Iraq, think for a moment about the issue relative to the restrictions placed on the military.  Geneva Convention rules require that the military use ‘full metal jacket’ or ‘ball’ ammo.  They are not permitted to use “jacketed hollow points” or other defensive ammo.  This makes a big difference in the ability of the 9mm vs. .45 ACP to wound.  A 9mm JHP round typically expands to an average of .62 to .64 inches in diameter.  A typical .45 ACP JHP round expands to .74 inches in diameter.  The difference between the two is approximately .12 inches or about 1/8″.  If you look at the size of holes being punched by ball ammo, it is .354 inches for the 9mm vs .45 inches.  When penetration is not an issue, the bigger hole is better.

Honestly, I don’t think you would go wrong with either a .45 or a 9mm.  One other thing I like about the 9mm vs. the .45 is the magazine capacity.  For just about any semi-auto pistol, the 9mm has close to twice the capacity of the same gun in .45 caliber.  In the Glock 17 the ammo capacity is 17 rounds while the average full size 1911 only holds 9 rounds.  You can get a Glock 21 that will hold 13 rounds of .45 ACP though.

My personal handgun of choice is the Glock 23.  It is chambered for the .40 S&W cartridge.  While not nearly as popular as either 9mm or .45 ACP, the .40 S&W is a respectable compromise.  It pushes a 180 gr. bullet to a muzzle velocity of around 1100 fps delivering around 490 ft/lbs of energy.  That is a lot more energy than either the .45 ACP or 9mm.  It also punches a bigger hole than the 9mm, averaging about .68 inches.  It does have a hefty recoil, but if you can learn to control it, it is a powerful defensive round.  Interestingly, you can also purchase a .357 SIG barrel that will simply drop into the Glock 23 allowing you to shoot either caliber by swapping out the barrel.  Glock 23 magazines are interchangeable for both .40 and .357 SIG cartridges.

I hope I have given you some food for thought here…bottom line, if I had to choose one gun in a doomsday scenario, ammo will be the issue and for that reason I would probably go with the 9mm.  If you can plan ahead and acquire enough ammo to eliminate availability as an issue, I’d consider the .40 S&W…big bullet, higher velocity and greater energy delivered than either the 9mm or the .45 ACP.

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