Jim’s Gems #2 – Selecting a Defensive Caliber

By August 6, 2017Columns, Jim's Gems

I Didn’t Get Fired, Let’s Talk Defensive Calibers

defensive caliber, shooting, guns, pistols

We Thought We Would Tease Jim!

I didn’t get fired after my first article, so I guess you’re stuck with me on this next one.  If you read my last article on defensive pistol selection, you may already have an idea as to what caliber I lean towards…or, do you?  However, I believe that this is another unicorn that does not exist.

Many people agonize long, sleepless nights over the “perfect” caliber for their primary defensive pistol.  I know that I have.  Will the ammunition be reliable or will some exotic hollow point design cause feeding malfunctions?  Does the caliber I selected have enough penetration or too much?  Can the caliber incapacitate the suspect while not being difficult to manage under recoil and muzzle blast?  Will I have enough ammunition to finish what I start, that is if there are multiple attackers or if the first few shots don’t hit the mark?  Can I afford and find the ammunition I select in most gun stores?  All of these serious questions should come to mind when making a selection for your ideal defensive caliber selection.

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Just A Few of the Volumes On The Subject

The History & My History (Re) Defensive Caliber

In 1986, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) attempted to take down two violent criminals in Miami, Florida.  Unfortunately, things went very bad. Of the eight agents involved in the gunfight, two FBI agents were left dead and five wounded.  While many things could have been done differently, many people viewed the poor ammunition performance of the 9mm and 38 Special cartridges as the primary cause of the agents’ deaths.  Thankfully, this incident brought about more scientific testing of defensive ammunition and increased consumer demand for jacketed hollow point performance from the manufacturers.  This incident, also, brought upon the switch from revolvers to semi-automatics in the U.S. police force.

defensive shooting, handgun, pistol, caliber

Choices, Choices, Choices

For the record, I need to give you full disclosure.  Over the past 25 years, I have carried the following calibers while on duty:  38 Special, 357 Magnum, 9x19mm (9mm), 40 S&W and 45 ACP.  While any of these calibers will work, I have bet my life on the 45 ACP cartridge for more than half of that time, though I now carry the 9mm cartridge.  I have carried the 40 S&W and 38 Special cartridges the least.  Are there other calibers that will work?  Sure, but you will quickly figure out why these listed are the top picks.

Defensive Caliber Criteria

When selecting your best defensive handgun caliber, we first need to make sure that we don’t get caught up in a pistol/revolver selection issue rather than the appropriate cartridge selection for our needs.  Many people fixate on the type of gun that they are going to carry, that, in many instances, they don’t realize that it limits the “perfect” cartridge for them.  For example, most defensive revolvers are generally offered in rimmed cartridges such as the 38 Special or the 357 Magnum.  There are a few revolvers chambered in 40 S&W and 45 ACP, but they are bigger, heavier, more costly, require things called “moon clips” to properly function and are less available than the 38/357 versions.  Selecting the 1911 pistol generally means 45 ACP caliber, for optimum performance.  Likewise, smaller guns come in smaller calibers, for several reasons like proper function and controllability.

Criteria Enumerated

Here are a few other issues that I consider when picking my “perfect” defensive pistol cartridge:

defensive shooting, handgun, pistol, caliber

Different types of 38/357 bullets

  1. Reliability:  If the handgun/ammunition combination will not fire 500 rounds without malfunction for you, its performance is suspect for working when you need it to work the most. This includes your choice of jacketed hollow point bullet for self-defense use.
  2. Penetration: Generally, 12-18″ of penetration in ballistic gelatin is needed to reach vital organs of suspects, even at oblique angles and through barriers such as clothing and glass.  Again, this is with jacketed hollow point ammunition.
  3. Shootability:  This is a technical term I use to describe the amount of felt recoil (ability to hold on target and controllability under recoil), muzzle flash/blast, etc. given by the cartridge chosen.
  4. Reasonable accuracy with defensive jacketed hollow point ammunition: Generally, around 4″ groups from a rest at 25 yards.
  5. High capacity:  Preferably magazines holding more than ten cartridges.  The fastest reload is always the one we do not have to make.
  6. Easy to Find:  Ammunition (for practice and carry) is in regular production and is available nationwide in most full-service gun shops.
  7. Cost: Is the chosen cartridge available at a reasonable price? (Especially since we should be practicing at least 100 rounds per month).

Criteria Discussed

Reliability, penetration and shootability are my three main concerns in picking my perfect cartridge.  Reliability is always the first consideration.  If the handgun will not function properly, it will not solve your problem.  This is for practice and carry ammunition.  Avoid unusual hollow point designs that have a tendency to cause feeding malfunctions in your pistol.  Nothing creates a lack of confidence and increases bad habits like a handgun that will not function!

Simple Things Like Moon Clips (left) Change Reliability/Shootability/…

Penetration is second.  Any bullet that doesn’t reach the vitals of your attacker, through any barriers presented, will probably not stop them from harming you.  You never know if you will have to shoot through a wall, windshield, car door, heavy clothing, etc. to be effective.  Note: penetration is effected by bullet weight, diameter of projectile (bullet), muzzle velocity, bullet material type and bullet nose configuration.  Any change to one of these can make drastic changes in ballistic performance.

And Discussed Further

As far as I’m concerned, “Shootability” is third, yet still very important.  Some cartridges have more felt recoil (increasing shot to shot recovery time back on target), muzzle flash (this causes issues with low light vision) and have a harder to control recoil impulse than others.  In plain English, 40 S&W and 357 Magnum cartridges are generally harder to shoot well due to heavier felt recoil, recoil impulse and muzzle flash/blast, than compared to a 9mm or 38 Special.  This increase in muzzle blast and felt recoil is why I don’t recommend 41 or 44 Magnums for self-defense use against other human beings.  Can you learn to shoot the 40 S&W and the 357 Magnum well?  Sure, but you will have to work harder at it than a 9mm or 38 Special.

Reasonable accuracy, high-capacity, easy to find/availability and cost are all issues, but not issues that, alone, would stop me from choosing the perfect defensive cartridge for my use.  Whether the cartridge and pistol combination shoots into 1″ or 6″ groups doesn’t really matter at most of the distances I would shoot to stop an attacker.  If I ever find that I have won the lottery, I could afford to buy cases of exotic 356 TSW or 10mm ammo for practice, so cost would not be a factor.  Some parts of the country tend to have more users of smaller and lighter bullets (38/357 Magnum, 9mm), versus bigger and heavier bullets (40 S&W and 45ACP).  Obviously, with the law of supply and demand, most stores will stock what is selling the best.  Ask your local dealer what cartridges they sell the most of in your area.

Bullet Expansion – Another Core Criteria
Gold Dot 90 gr, JHP, 380 ACP.
Photo by Norm Collins

Let’s Get To Selecting  A Defensive Caliber

Personally, my two favorite self-defense calibers are the 9mm and 45 ACP.  What would make me choose a 45 ACP over a 9mm, or vice versa?  Obviously, someone who lives in the northern states would have heavier clothing considerations for more needed penetration.  Those people living out west have large animals, such as grizzly bears, to worry about.  In the southern part of the United States, it’s extremely hot during the summer months so the clothing most people wear is less and thinner. This requires less penetration.  You get the idea.  With all things equal, bigger and heavier bullets are more effective at stopping heavier animals since they let more blood out and take air in due to the larger permanent wound cavity.

The main issue that would cause me to choose one over another caliber, is what type of bullet or projectile are we talking about?  Are we comparing modern-day, bonded core, jacketed hollow-point bullets from Speer, Remington or Winchester?  If so, all of the listed calibers perform about the same in penetration and expansion.  Are we limited to full metal jacket ammunition as is only used in the military, the state of New Jersey, etc.?  In this case, I would choose the 45 ACP.

Full metal jacket 9mm ammunition performs just as poorly today as it did when it came out in the year of 1908.  Full metal jacket 45 ACP works much better. It is still not as good as modern-day, bonded core, jacketed hollow point bullets from Speer, Remington and Winchester.  Here’s one of the many ballistic tests available on-line to check the performance of your favorite carry caliber.


Don’t Believe Me? Test It Yourself

defensive shooting, caliber, handgun, pistol

Try Some Milk Jug Shooting
Photo by Norm Collins

Since we rarely believe anything we read, I’ve been using my own method to test bullet performance at home. It’s cheaper and easier.  Empty gallon sized milk jugs work well in determining pistol penetration and performance.  We take five jugs and place them in a row. We space them with approximately 1 1/2″ between them (Note: the average jug is 5 3/4″ in width). Then, we fire our test ammo to determine performance and expansion.  Since 1997, while using modern-day, bonded core, jacketed hollow point bullets, I find that the listed defensive calibers stop in the third or fourth water jug.  This is regardless of the listed calibers 9mm, 38 Special, 357 Magnum, 40 S&W, or 45 ACP.  It is consistent as long as we’re using jacketed hollow point ammunition.  Most full metal jacket bullets go clear through all five jugs!   Plan to get wet if you try this experiment at home.

With the current ammunition performance enhancements (like in the Speer Gold Dot, Remington Golden Saber and Winchester SXT/PDX product lines), many law enforcement agencies like the FBI have gone back to using the 9mm cartridge.  Many local law enforcement agencies in my area (eastern North Carolina) returned to it because of the following: less felt recoil of the lighter cartridge, smaller and lighter pistols more officers can get their hands around, higher magazine capacity, less muzzle flash and less ammunition cost.

Prepare To Get Wet
Photo by Norm Collins

My Defensive Caliber Choices

I used to carry a 1911, 45 ACP pistol with three magazines that gave me a load out of 25 rounds of ammunition.  For the same ammunition weight, I now carry a duty load out of 50 rounds of 9mm ammunition. That’s down-loading my two spare magazines with one round each!  Due to the lighter gun weight of the polymer pistol, I saved enough gun and ammunition weight to offset adding the weight of a weapon mounted light.  At the same time, I doubled my ammunition supply.  Gun and ammunition weight may not bother you for short periods of time, but wearing this gear for 8-13 hours per day eventually takes its toll.

So, what are the cartridges that I like to use and have seen to have the most consistent performance?  The list is not ordered, since we all have different factors to consider.  Personally, I favor the following loads for defensive use:

  1. 38 Special, 125-158 gr JHP +P from the listed companies above. Other brands may work well, but I have tested these and am comfortable in recommending.
  2. 357 Magnum, 125-158 gr JHP – depends on barrel length, as does the 38 Special
  3. 9mm, 115-124 gr JHP +P – I prefer 124 gr weight
  4. 40 S&W, 165-180 gr JHP – I prefer 180 gr weight
  5. 45 ACP, 200-230 gr JHP – I prefer 230 gr weight

Defensive Caliber Choices (left to right):
38 Special
357 Magnum
9×19 (9mm)
40 S&W
45 ACP

You will note that there are other available bullet weights on the extreme ends of these calibers in either direction.  I stay in the middle of what the cartridges were initially designed to get the best performance.  Otherwise, your recoil spring/slide velocity may out-run the ability of the magazine to feed the cartridges into the chamber.  This is all about proper timing.

There Can Only Be 1 – Not Really

No cartridge is perfect.  They all have different strengths and weaknesses, just like us!  Our size, ability, experience, skill level, environment and possible needs will affect what our best choice should be.  Everything will be a trade-off.  If you get more ammunition, it will have to be smaller in caliber.  If you get more performance, you will have to deal with more recoil and muzzle flash/blast.  Remember this is part of an overall system.

Case in point, the U.S. Air Marshal’s issue 357 Sig caliber pistols because they want a lot of penetration in a semi-automatic handgun. The 357 Sig accomplishes  it because it’s a lightweight, small diameter bullet, moving at high-speed. They chose this cartridge to allow them to shoot through airplane seats to stop terrorists. This is the same reason why North Carolina Highway Patrol uses the 357 Sig. They are concerned with being able to shoot through windshield glass, car doors, etc., while still having enough penetration to stop a suspect.  Obviously, they usually work around vehicles due to the nature of their job.

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Jims Defensive Load Out:
Glock 17, 9mm, 50 rds
1911, 45 ACP, 25 rds
S&W, 357 Mag, 18 rds

Final Thoughts on Defensive Caliber Choice

As far as I’m concerned, I’ll stick with the current 9mm 124 gr, +P (high velocity) load from Speer (Gold Dot) or Winchester (SXT/PDX).  Muzzle velocity was 1,233 fps and 1,278 fps, from my Glock 17 when I respectively chronographed it.  That’s within 100 fps of the 357 Sig and 357 Magnum loads using the same bullet weight in 4″ barreled guns.  Yet, the 9mm +P, 124 grain JHP has advantages. It has less felt recoil and less muzzle flash/blast. Most are lighter guns than the heavier calibers. Finally, it holds more ammunition and is cheaper to shoot than the other calibers. Let’s face it, 9mm (9x19mm) ammunition is available worldwide, while some of the other calibers are not.

A lot has changed since the 1986 Miami FBI shoot-out that began the police transition from revolvers to semi-automatics, as well as the development of high performance duty/carry ammunition.  The quality of the pistols, ammunition development and our knowledge of ballistics has dramatically increased.  Take advantage of this and invest in some quality defensive hollow point ammunition.  The life you save may be your own.

Until next month…see you on the range!


Read The other Jim’s Gems articles:

Jim’s Gems #1 Defensive Pistol Selection Thoughts and Experiences

One Comment

  • Stan Kittrell says:

    Great article. I am retired Law Enforcement. I use Speer Gold Dot 124 Gr. I carry a Glock 19 normally but I also carry 1 or 2 Glock17 magazines instead of G19 mags.. For home defense I have a Glock 17 with a Streamlight attached and 2 mags handy.

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