Which Is The Best Caliber For Self Defense?

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The Caliber Wars Revisited

Which Cartridge Has Real "Stopping Power"

Trick question as there is no "right" answer. If you want to start a long, loud, and ultimately boring, argument among any group of firearms enthusiasts, just ask that question. There are many various studies" on ",One Shot Stopping Power", such as the famous Marshall & Sanow Data (or perhaps I should say infamous), Chuck Hawkes' "Handgun Cartridge Power Chart" as well as his excellent article Handgun Stopping Power, or this study compiled by Greg Ellifritz which seems as comprehensive as any I've found and which I am unable to locate in a primary source.

As they all point out, there are some really ineffective cartridges against a human attacker, and the common self defense calibers are not nearly as far apart as their various advocates would have us believe. And as Hawkes points out in Handgun Stopping Power, there are just too many variables in such a dynamic situation to provide a definitive answer.

All those links were provided for those of you who want a LOT of background and references before making making any weighty decisions. But to boil it down to what I've come to believe after doing much reading and research, here are my conclusions. Bear in mind this an intensely personal decision, and this is just one man’s opinion, though I believe it to be an informed one.

Or cut to the chase

.22, .25, and .32

"Mouse Guns." When you absolutely, positively, can’t carry anything larger they are certainly better than no gun at all. (A stainless steel derringer in your bikini?) But any objective look at the data demonstrates that they lag well behind the larger calibers in their potential to quickly neutralize a deadly threat to you or your loved ones. And as manufacturers are making ever more concealable and easy to carry handguns in the more effective calibers, the rational for their usage diminishes.

Surprisingly, the lowly .22 rim-fire appears a better choice than either the .25 or .32, both center-fire cartridges. Go with Magnums, CCI Stingers, Remington Yellow Jackets or Vipers, or something similar. Use round nose bullets as the hollow points sacrifice penetration for expansion. And as with all calibers, shot placement is critical. But even more so with the tiny .22 round.


Or 9mm Kurtz (German for short). Having never been a fan of this cartridge, I am slowly being persuaded that with modern ballistics, the .380 has become a legitimate self defense round. Purchase the absolute best self defense round you can find. Use +P rounds if your firearm is rated for them and they are comfortable for you to shoot. But, yet again makers are working magic, making even more effective caliber handguns ever smaller and lighter. Enter the ...


As an old school caliber snob, who started in pistols with the .45 caliber 1911, and carried a .357 for years, I clung to the belief that bigger was better. However, I am slowly becoming convinced that the 9mm is the sweet spot for self defense cartridges. This round offers near .40 caliber, .45 caliber, levels of performance in a more controllable, easier to shoot package. It allows for quicker recovery for a follow up shot(s), and the "One Shot Stop" is largely mythical. Available in form factors from larger than full size (for home defense and competition) to pocket pistols which are easily concealed, hard to argue against the 9mm.

.38 Special

Lagging only slightly behind the 9mm in performance, this is another very legitimate choice. +P rounds ammo designed by top tier ammunition companies for the purpose of self defense will really stretch the potential of this caliber. Only available in revolvers. See revolver vs semi-automatic discussion.

.357 Magnum

Arguably the most potent of the self defense cartridges. Unfortunately, it do kick! Takes time, effort, and practice to learn to control, and some smaller folks may never comfortably shoot it. Guns that can handle the extreme pressures generated by the round are bigger and heavier than their counterparts. And though there are some smaller, lighter guns in .357, they are no fun to shoot. And this comes from a man who carried one on my hip for years, and loves the round. Probably the smallest cartridge with which you should responsibly hunt deer sized game. Also only available in revolvers.

Have began to hear reports that the newish Chippia Rhino, with it's new take on the revolver, goes a long way toward taming the mighty .357. Might checck it out if revolvers are your choice.

.40 cal

My everyday carry pistol, and that of many police departments. Chosen for it’s theoretical higher stopping power than the 9mm. Maybe, maybe not. It has a reputation as a "snappy" cartridge with significantly more recoil than many others on this list. I don’t find it so. Though I shoot an all steel, full sized CZ 75b that helps dampen the recoil. I'm also a 6', 230lb male. It does go "Bang!" with authority. A highly effective self defense round. I would hunt with this round if the State of Illinois did not insist on revolvers for hunting.

.45 ACP

(Automatic Colt Pistol) The iconic round in many minds. It’s reputation is of a slower, more gentle "push" on recoil than the .40. I do find it easy to shoot. Have not shot the .40 and .45 back to back to evaluate the recoil. Now available in smaller form factors than the old GI 1911. Another proven performer.

.357 Sig, .38 Super, and .45 GAP

GAP is (Glock Automatic Pistol). These rounds I have tremendous confidence in as effective self defense calibers. They have not caught on with the buying public, in my opinion because they offer little improvement over older, more established calibers. Though the .38 Super has a fair measure of popularity in competion circles. Consequently, they are harder to find, more limited in selection, and ammo and accessories are more expensive.

.41, .44 special, 10mm

Serious rounds. Big heavy guns. IMPRESSIVE recoil. Everything stated about the .357 only in spades. Also great hunting rounds and some very nice pistols purpose made for that usage.

In Short

For self defense the 9mm or .38 Special are just very hard to argue against. The 9mm is, after all, the caliber issued to most of our servicemen and is in widespread use by law enforcement in the US and abroad. Like the 9mm, the .40 is available in many smaller, easier to conceal form factors today and an effective cartridge. The .45 is another favorite option. If you must go smaller, the .380 offers ever improved ballistic performance and is no longer to be sneered at. In all these cartridges, realize that generally speaking, smaller pistols are easier to conceal and harder to shoot.

If you have the opportunity to shoot several of these calibers before making a purchase you will be ahead of the game. Beg a friend to take you shooting. Go to a range with a good selection of rentals. Bear in mind you will not like any caliber shot from a gun that is not comfortable to you. Find one that fits well in your hand. Make sure the grips are not pressing sharp edges into your hand. Then decide what caliber you prefer. Be nice if you can shoot the identical model in both calibers if possible.

Some Great Self Defense Loads

  • Speer Gold Dot
  • Remington Golden Saber
  • Cor-Bon "Self Defense"
  • Federal Hydra-Shok
  • Hornady XTP "Critical Defense"
  • Winchester Silvertip

All are Jacketed Hollow Points (JHP). You always want to ensure that your gun will reliably feed whatever defense round you choose. You do not want to hear a "click" when you desperately need a "bang". Check for accuracy as well. Most firearms have a "preference" for one brand over another. Self defense ammo is expensive. But how much is the life of yourself or your loved ones worth in the extremely rare event that you actually NEED protection against a serious threat? This is not the time to say "Hope it works!"

Hope this helps.

+P rounds are loaded with a more powerful powder charge (think +Power). They offer greater penetration and more energy than standard loads. Some handguns are not designed for the greater pressures produced, check your owners manual. The increase in performance comes at the cost of slightly greater recoil, especially in smaller, lighter platforms.

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