After training hundreds of individuals and doing considerable research on handguns and cartridges, I have come to realize that many shooters do not realize the work a handgun cartridge must do. There has been considerable research and intensive testing during the past two decades—more so than the previous 100 years. The FBI set the need for penetration, expansion, and diameter forth after expensive and extensive testing, but how many shooters truly understand caliber, ballistics, and bullet choice?
Personal experience can never approach that level of research and its validity. Just the same, there are those who beg to differ and take a nonchalant attitude toward personal defense. That’s fine because it is their hide. They are only responsible for their own actions.
I come from a law enforcement background. When in charge of choosing the duty load at two different agencies, it was more than my own hide I had to consider. Not only my fellow officers, but also the public had to be protected, and this meant the best possible choice. Each agency allowed the 9mm or .45 cartridge as long the individual officer could qualify with his choice. Even in an institutional environment, I had to parry opinions that were formed from too much TV and bad movies.
The notion that a handgun caliber could actually knock a person down dies hard. There were a number of so-called studies published in the popular press. As I told one young officer who wished to discuss these tests, “Prove that they even occurred before we discuss them.” Studies with secret or confidential sources have a validity of zero. Someone claimed to have shot a large number of Alpine Goats. If such tests were conducted—and I am more than skeptical—the value of shooting drugged animals and measuring the time it takes for them to collapse is worthless as related to self-defense.
Choosing a handgun and cartridge is serious business. You need to find the best information possible. My information doesn’t come from some guy at the pawnshop or an internet commando. Most have titles like Doctor or perhaps Captain or Special Agent. Dr. Vincent DiMiao and Dr. Martin Fackler were highly intelligent individuals with great medical experience. But then so was Colonel LaGarde, a highly decorated and effective field officer. Colonel Thompson was among the finest military officers ever to serve and a man of great personal integrity.
The Thompson LaGarde tests were thorough and painstaking. I also study the results of FBI ammunition testing. These results are repeatable and verifiable. They will be consistent no matter who does the testing if properly administered. You may compare one load to the other using ballistic gelatin. I often use water testing because it is simple, and I am able to compare loadings quickly and easily with reasonable validity. Water results are within 10 percent of the results gained in gelatin testing, and that makes them viable for most purposes. Nothing duplicates human musculature and bone. Humans are pretty tough and will take a lot of punishment—particularly when the tox sheet is off the charts.
The goal is to put the opponent out of the fight with the minimum number of rounds fired. The need to stop them must be so great that it does not matter morally or legally if they die as a result of being stopped. As I have often pointed out, the more shots fired, the greater the likelihood of death. One heavy blow is more likely to stop the opponent than a series of light blows. But you have to hit the target.
When you fire and hit the target, will the caliber and load you have chosen stop the attack, or will they be unaffected by your hits? People die of a variety of causes after being shot, sometimes days after being shot. That doesn’t do you any good if you are wearing a toe tag as well. Lethality doesn’t matter at all. Stopping the attack does matter, and a cartridge with good wound potential may do that.
Shot placement is the key. We have to understand muscle and bone structure. When we fire, we fire for the center of mass, the center of the target that is exposed to us. If possible, we fire for the arterial region. The cranium is a tough area of the body, and a difficult target at best in a personal defense situation. Choosing a minor caliber and then hoping for a headshot demands considerable skill and more luck than I care to chance.
Some folks have learned a few phrases concerning wound ballistics, and put them into a catchy word salad. That’s OK if you write for Grimm or Criminal Minds, but not if someone is relying upon your recommendation for personal defense. If you choose a load that is used by a major agency, then you will probably have good results.
There are several criteria that must be present for good results in a personal defense scenario. There are many needful skills, but it all boils down to shot placement. (One writer told us that we should carry the heaviest load possible because we can control the load but not where we put the bullet. This goes against all police training for 100 years.) There are two criteria for the handgun bullet, regardless of caliber. These are penetration and expansion.
When a small bore performs beyond expectation it is usually because it has penetrated to a vital area. When a large-bore handgun fails, it is usually due to under penetration. There are loads that limit penetration by design, and as a result, severely limit the effectiveness of the caliber. This is fine for range safety but not for a handgun that may be called upon in a wide range of scenarios.
You would expect the larger bullets to do more damage, and they do. The larger the diameter, the greater the damage. Some calibers do not need to expand to be effective. Small bore calibers do not always benefit from an expanding bullet, as penetration may be limited to the point the bullet does not reach a vital area. Energy isn’t a good comparison baseline but useful in comparing cartridges to the others. Actual damage is what counts.
So, with the laws of physics in effect, the sure thing would be to carry a .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum handgun. Well, that is heavy on the belt, so we will carry an Ultra Light .45. We have another problem that isn’t part of wound ballistics but affects shot placement. That is recoil.
A hard-kicking handgun is very difficult to control. It isn’t enjoyable to fire and use, and practice sessions will not be undertaken. There may even be sharp edges that make firing the piece painful. Even the .38 Special can be painful in a lightweight handgun. So we need a balance.
A beginner may be startled by heavy recoil and never advance. However, we are not really talking about beginners, but rather a good choice in caliber for a shooter willing to practice. The balance of the weight of the gun also matters. A heavier firearm will absorb recoil more efficiently.
There have been numerous trick calibers that limit recoil. The 5.7mm cartridge is one. The .22 TCM beats the 5.7 by a margin, and yet the .22 TCM isn’t something I would care to take into a gunfight. It is accurate and a great pest and varmint load, but I find a 9mm in the same size handgun quite docile. This brings us to another factor, gun size—and gun size is a true limiting factor.
We want to carry a decent-sized handgun that enables us to control recoil, but one which is light enough for constant carry and which strikes a formidable blow. This is where holster choice affects your ability to defend yourself. With a properly chosen holster you may conceal a Ruger SP101 with heavy +P loads. You will be able to shoot it much better than an aluminum frame snub nose .38. That is one of the best examples I can give.
By the same token, a 30 ounce .45 is controllable. Among the best choices is a 9mm with +P loads. I clocked the Double Tap 115-grain JHP 9mm at over 1,350 fps from the Vickers Tactical Glock. Recoil is controllable; mild by my standards. A .357 Magnum with a 110-grain JHP at 1,350 fps in a revolver is more difficult to control.
Recoil is sharp. Why? The action of the self-loader absorbs some recoil. But the 9mm uses six to eight grains of fast-burning powder to achieve the same velocity the .357 Magnum does with 14 to 16 grains of slower burning powder, resulting in less recoil energy for the 9mm. For personal defense, the 9mm is superior in control and offers excellent wound ballistics given the proper loads.
The bullet must penetrate intermediate barriers and reach the vitals. The barrier may be a heavy jacket or an arm bone. Small calibers are more easily stopped by heavy bone. A bullet with a round ogive is more likely to bounce off bone. An expanding bullet such as the Hornady XTP hollow point or Hornady Critical Defense bullet will increase wound potential by cutting flesh rather than simply pushing it aside.
The greater the blood loss caused by the projectile, the more quickly the body shuts down. I have tested the most modern loads, including the Federal HST and Winchester PDX bullets. They are great designs with a good balance of expansion and penetration. However, any hollow point may fail to expand. They may hit bone and close rather than opening. Then, all you have is bullet weight and diameter.
The most efficient combination for most shooters seems to be a mid-frame handgun with a mid-caliber cartridge. The Glock 19 9mm, Honor Guard 9mm, and similar-sized 9mm handguns are concealable and offer excellent shooting qualities. The Glock 43 is lighter, with a smaller grip, and a bit harder to use well, but the Glock offers reliability and may be mastered with practice. A formidable home defense handgun is a .38 Special +P revolver loaded with +P loads such as the Federal HST. This is still one of the finest all around choices for a shooter that has little time to practice.
The hard-kicking .357 Magnum revolver and .357 SIG self-loader share similar traits. The revolver has the advantage in bullet selection and power at the top end. The self-loader holds more cartridges. Each requires a considerable commitment to master. Each of the .357s is hard on the handgun in long-term use. They are high-pressure numbers, and while the handguns will not blow up, wear on small parts is a problem.
The .45 ACP cartridge operates at less pressure than the 9mm, .40, or .357 SIG. Unlike most handguns calibers, the .45 ACP earned an excellent reputation with the standard jacketed loading. Public safety and common sense demand you take advantage of modern JHP loads, but it is good to know that standard ball load is plenty effective. The key to mastering the .45 is to select a handgun with a weight of 30 ounces or more. A SIG P220 or steel frame Commander is ideal.
When all is considered, most shooters will find the mid-frame 9mm pistol offers the best balance of control, accuracy, and wound potential. Are there overlooked combinations that may offer even greater advantages? Not in my opinion. The .40 is a fine service cartridge in full-size pistols, but shooters armed with the .40 have arrived at class with poor habits including flinch. Much the same may be said for the .357 SIG.
A somewhat overlooked combination with a small, but loyal, following is the .38 ACP Super. Chambered in .45-size handguns, the .38 ACP Super offers a 100 – 150 fps boost over the 9mm +P and is among the most docile handgun calibers for the power. With standard pressure loads, the .44 Special and .45 Colt revolvers are viable home-defense handguns, but large and heavy to carry on a regular basis.
I think we keep coming back to the baseline. The .38 Special +P and the 9mm Luger are good places to be.