Three Best Calibers for Armed Self-Defense

Caliber wars — gun owners arguing over the relative merits of various calibers of self-defense ammunition — are an ugly, protracted business. This article will do nothing to reduce the hostility, and much to increase it. So be it. A gun owner’s choice of caliber for personal defense is a serious business. After reading the text below, I recommend reading the comments as well. Try out different handguns in different calibers and don’t get “married” to a particular choice. There may be a better gun – ammo – holster combo out there, somewhere . . .


1. 9mm

Gun gurus once considered 9mm ammunition underpowered, best for shooters who couldn’t or wouldn’t “man-up” and shoot the big boy .45 caliber bullet. Not anymore. In terms of “stopping power,” the experts now see it as something of a wash. The smaller and faster 9mm bullet offers more penetration than a .45, while the .45 offers greater expansion (makes bigger holes) than the 9mm. But in terms of recoil, there’s a significant difference.

According to, the recoil generated by the G19 generated 4.76 ft.-lbs. of recoil, compared to the G21’s 7.21 ft-lbs. This confirms what experienced shooters will tell you: it’s easier to hit what you’re aiming at with a 9mm round than a .45. And when it comes to self-defense, shot placement is king.

There are other, confusing variables. A small 9mm handgun is harder to control than a heavy .45. But generally speaking, most shooters are more accurate with 9mm than .45 (or .40 caliber ammunition). Add in the low price of 9mm target ammo and the carry capacity enabled by the round’s diminutive size and it’s easy to see why 9mm rules the self-defense ammo roost.

2. .38 Special

Revolvers remain ideal for new shooters — especially those who won’t train or hit the range. Which is, let’s face it, the vast majority of American gun buyers. While revolvers come in some astoundingly powerful calibers (e.g. .44 Magnum), those guns generate the same accuracy-robbing recoil described above. And then some.

A wheelgun in chambered in the softer shooting .38 Special will get ‘er done. While the .38 Special surrenders speed (about 300 ft./sec.) and energy (about 150 ft.-lbs.) to the 9mm, so what? A modern hollow-point .38 caliber bullet still generates more than merely adequate penetration and, critically, controllable recoil (when shot from anything other than a lightweight snubbie).

The .38 Special’s real drawback? Capacity. Most revolvers chambered in .38 hold either five (for small guns) or six rounds. That’s not a lot of ammo when you consider the fact that handgun rounds [in general] aren’t particularly lethal, and that many attacks involve multiple assailants. Even so, the .38 Special round makes revolvers viable if not ideal (is there such a thing?) self-defense for millions of Americans.

10mm Ted Nugent ammo (courtesy

3. 10mm

Let’s say recoil isn’t an issue; you know how to control it. You could shoot .45, but you want greater capacity and, crucially, the most effective man-stopping [almost] commonly available handgun cartridge money can buy. That would be the same round the FBI chose for its agents: 10mm.

Right until they didn’t. The Fibbies bailed on 10mm when they discovered that many of their employees couldn’t shoot the round for beans (i.e. accurately). It’s worth repeating: the 10mm cartridge is a stout round, serving-up roughly 50 percent more recoil than a .45.

The payoff for getting to grips with a 10mm handgun? Power. Depending on the ammo, 10mm generates some 650 – 750 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy, compared to around 350 – 450 ft.-lbs. for a .45. You’re still better off with a rifle, and shot placement is always the thing, but 10mm is the the ammo hunters depend on in bear country. Say no more? I doubt it . . .