Any serious discussion of handgun calibers should begin with the acknowledgement that, when armed with a handgun only, you are distinctly disadvantaged in firepower, range and accuracy compared to most rifles and shotguns. The only real reasons for choosing a handgun over a long-arm are concealability, convenience, and handiness.
Concealability and convenience are obvious; handiness refers to their usefulness in close-quarters, like indoors or "social encounters", and the fact they can be used one-handed, while the off hand is otherwise occupied.
Thus, you naturally want the most powerful, reliable, highest-capacity handgun possible (due to the firepower disadvantage) that will still fulfill the need for concealment, convenience and/or handiness.
The three calibers that have been proven, through actual shooting incidents, to be the most effective in defensive shooting are the .45, .40, and .357 magnum. Preferred loads are typically a quality hollowpoint, such as the Cor-bon, Gold-dot or Hydrashok JHP's.
The following data is drawn from Evan Marshall and Dr. Fuller's studies on both ballistic tests and actual shooting incidents.
"Load" is the specific load, "vel" is velocity in fps, "Energy" is in foot-lbs, "Penetr" is avg penetration inches in ballistic gelatin, "F.Dia." is final diameter of recovered bullets, "One-stop" is the percentage of times, in actual shootings, that a single hit to the torso stopped a subject's attempt to attack or flee. Hyd-Shok is Hydroshok, Goldsabr is gold-saber, JHP is jacketed hollow-point,
Load vel. energy penetr F.Dia. One-stop
230gr Hyd-shok 850 349 12 0.78 94%
230gr Goldsabr 875 391 14 0.75 93%
Corbon 185grJHP 1150 544 11.3 0.70 92%
Corbon135gJHP 1300 507 9.8 0.56 96%
Fedrl 155grJHP 1140 448 12 0.65 94%
165gr Goldsabr 1150 485 12 0.68 94%
Fedrl 125grJHP 1450 584 12 0.65 96%
Fedrl 110grJHP 1295 410 10 0.40 90%
125gr GoldSabr 1220 413 13 0.60 84%
Obviously, the .40 has consistently high stopping power. The .45 is roughly equivalent. The .357magnum, mostly a revolver caliber, has exceptionally good stopping power with an inexpensive Federal 125 grain jacketed hollow point.
Secondary defense calibers, with lesser but still effective stopping power, are the 9mm and the .38 Special. In both calibers, the most effective load is the Cor-bon 115 grain JHP+P. Both of these calibers, especially the .38sp, are known to have limited ability to penetrate intervening obstacles like automobile windshields, or hard targets like the human skull.
vel. energy pentr. F.Dia. One-stop
Corbon115grJHP+P 1350 466 14 0.55 91%
Rem.124grGoldSabr+P 1180 384 12 0.65 83%
Win 115grSiltip 1225 383 8 0.72 83%
Corbon115gr JHP+P 1250 399 15 0.58 83%
Win158grSWCHP+P 890 278 15 0.62 78%
Fedrl 125grJHP+P 945 248 12 0.69 73%
Corbon 115grain Jacketed Hollowpoints +P(highpower) are the clear winner...but these hot loads are expensive and should only be used in high-quality guns that specifically say they are suitable for +P ammo.
The calibers here termed as "Last Resort" are for times when it is impossible to carry anything but a very small handgun. These are the .380 and .32 auto calibers. The best .380 load is the Cor-bon 90 grain JHP+P, or arguably the 90 grain Hydrashok. The best .32 load is either the 60grain Silvertip or Gold-dot...the Gold Dot may have better penetration.
vel. energy penetr F.Dia. One-stop
90grCorbonJHP+P 1050 220 9 0.58 70%
Fedr90grHydshok 1000 200 10.5 0.58 69%
Fedr90grJHP 1000 200 14 0.36 69%
Win60grSilvertp 970 125 6.5 0.57 63%
71grFMJ 905 129 18.5 0.32 50%
The Gold-dot CCI-Speer .32 auto ammo is too new for definate data, but test results indicate .54 expansion with 8.3" penetration, indicating results comparable to the Silvertip, with better penetration.
.22 and .25 caliber pocket pistols are nearly useless for self defense. In particular, the .25 auto has the worst ballistics and stopping power of any handgun caliber. While a .22long or .22magnum may inflict an eventually-fatal wound, they have little ability to incapacitate or STOP an attacker, making them unsuitable to defense.
The famed .44 magnum, preferably in a Ruger Redhawk or Blackhawk, is an excellent field or big-game handgun-hunting round. It is not really suitable for defense. Recoil and muzzle blast are a problem for many shooters, and reduce the quickness and accuracy of follow-up shots; the .44 mag also tends to overpenetrate, and its added power does not significantly increase practical stopping power, as the following table shows:
vel. energy penetr F.dia One-stop
Win210grSilvertip 1250 729 15 0.66 90%
Corbon180gUrban 1200 576 15 0.70 90%
Win200grSilvertip 810 292 10 0.61 75%
CCI200grGold dot 875 340 14 0.64 84%
Exotic heavy-handgun calibers like the .454 Casul and .50AE, have far too much recoil and muzzle blast for all but the most dedicated shooters to master, and the increase in practical stopping power is small. Therefore, such loads are not considered here.
A statistical comparison of the various calibers and extrapolating from actual-shooting one-shot stop percentages, shows the THEORETICAL number of torso-hits required to achieve 99.9%+ stopping power. Note that this is for comparison purposes, NOT as a guide to "how many times to shoot". It does, however, reveal something about the relative effectiveness of various calibers.
Caliber and Load
One-shot-stop THEORETICAL #hits*
.45 230grHydshok 94% 3
.44mag 210grSilvtp 90% 3
.40 Corbon135grJHP 96% 2
.357mag 125grJHP 96% 2
9mm Corbon115grJHP+P 91% 3
.38sp Corbn115grJHP+P 83% 4
.380 Corbon90grJHP+P 70% 6
.32 Silvertip 63% 6
The various information in this article reveals much about hangun ballistics and stopping power; however, no theory is absolute and for every rule there are exceptions. In some cases, police have shot an individual repeatedly with 9mm and even .40 handguns, and had that individual continue to return fire...a point to keep in mind.
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