Many people who have decided to legally carry a self-defense gun are comparatively new to shooting. They have learned marksmanship techniques from their instructors, who have generally followed the courses of instruction sanctioned by their state. Most CCW courses contain at least one segment dealing with ammunition, but time constraints rarely allow much discussion on the suitability of the various calibers and bullet designs.
Also, it has to be said that a lot of instructors are worshippers at the “Temple of Boom,” and are keen proponents of heavy magnum calibers, which are not suitable for everyone. Looking through my own files of students who have taken my Concealed Weapons class, I find that the majority of them are age 50 and over, with 45% of them being women.
Many of these students were newcomers to shooting, so, in addition to letting them shoot as many calibers as possible, I also gave them notes on the various calibers.
The first thing you should know is that all handgun bullets can kill. However, very few of them will stop an attack instantly. The “magic bullet” that never misses, and incapacitates an opponent instantly doesn’t exist. You still have to aim!
Below, you’ll find a list of some popular calibers. I’ve used statistics from a number of sources to give stopping power percentages. However, these are not written in stone, as every bullet wound is a unique event. You could take a dozen people, all shot with the same caliber and weight of bullet, in the same place. Every wound would be slightly different. However, the statistics given have been taken from documented sources. The following percentages given refer to one-shot stops.
You can blame Ian Fleming for the popularity of this anemic caliber. The creator of James Bond armed his hero with a .25 Beretta in the early books, before he was armed with a Walther PPK. Despite the fact that Mr. Bond always succeeded in killing the villain with his Beretta, the .25 is totally useless as a self-defense caliber. This is the round you want the bad guy to have in his gun!
This is used by many European police agencies as a duty sidearm caliber. However, in Europe, armed crime is fairly rare, so there are few instances of police shooting it out with armed criminals. The .32 ACP it is not particularly effective, even though WW1 was started by a Bosnian assassin named Gavrilo Princip, who shot the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914 with a .32 Browning. On the plus side, however, recoil is mild, and with a well designed, high-speed hollow point bullet, or with frangible bullets like the Glaser or Magsafe, the .32 can be fairly effective. Efficiency rating is 50%.
With the right bullet configuration, this can be a very good choice for a self-defense round. However, hot loads in light guns can make it hard to get good follow-up shots. Efficiency rating is 64%.
If you use high-speed, hollow point bullets, the .38 can be fairly effective, but the standard, 158 grain, lead bullet loading is pretty anemic. You should select a 125 grain, hollow point bullet load for maximum stopping power. Efficiency rating is 68%.
This can be a very effective self-defense round, but when used in a snubby revolver, bullet speed is cut dramatically, and there’s lots of muzzle flash in low light conditions. There’s also the danger of over penetration with this powerful round. Recoil can be a little fierce, especially for beginners. It is not recommended for use in lightweight revolvers. Efficiency rating is 95%.
The 9mm is now almost the universal choice of caliber. It generates fairly mild recoil in standard-size guns, and a little more in shorter, compact autos. This is the recommended round by most instructors for students opting for a semi-auto pistol. Efficiency rating is 81%.
This is currently a well-established, popular law enforcement caliber. It is extremely effective with hollow point loads. Recoil can be fairly brisk, especially in lightweight guns. It is not a caliber for the beginner. Efficiency rating is 87%.
This 19th century round is an excellent self-defense caliber, with very good fight-stopping capabilities. The Charter Arms Bulldog was designed around this cartridge, and a number of new revolvers from Smith & Wesson and Taurus are chambered for it. Recoil is moderate, but can be severe in lightweight guns. If you do decide on a .44 revolver, try to find the lightest bullet weight, as this will generate less felt recoil. Efficiency rating is 69%.
This is a very good, small game hunting round, but has far too much penetration for any practical self-defense use. Recoil is severe, and the revolvers are generally far too big to be carried concealed successfully. Hollywood screenwriters have a lot to answer for! Efficiency rating is 87%.
As it nears its centenary, the venerable .45 Auto is still one of the better self-defense calibers. It has far less recoil than you would imagine, even when hot loads are used in lightweight models. As a case in point, one of my students, a young woman, had never fired any type of firearm. My wife, who was instructing her, gave her a Kimber Ultra-Carry .45 without telling her the caliber. She fired a magazine full at the target, with excellent results. When the student was asked about the recoil, she answered that she hadn’t found it too bad, but as she was concentrating on the sights and trigger, she really hadn’t had time to worry about recoil! Efficiency rating is 85%.
Although it has been around for well over a hundred years, this caliber is strictly for the cowboys. The revolvers are simply too large for concealed carry purposes. Efficiency rating is 64%.
From the above listings, you’ll see that stopping power is a trade-off between caliber and controllability. For the average person, a handgun in any caliber between .380 and .40 S&W will cover most eventualities.
For all of the calibers that we’ve mentioned, the ratings given were for hollow point bullets. Round nosed, military style, hardball ammo is great for practice, but for self-defense purposes, always use high-speed hollow points or frangible types of ammo, such as Glaser or Magsafe.
Despite Hollywood movies, the bullet has not yet been developed that delivers the knockdown power of a 155mm howitzer shell, combined with the recoil of a .22.
There is one more point that must be emphasized here. Women don’t have a problem with recoil! This is a myth, spread by guys who think that they know guns. These guys will spend hundreds of dollars on their own guns, and go to inordinate lengths to get the exact model they’re looking for. However, when it comes to their wife or girlfriend, they’ll pick out the smallest, most wimpish caliber and tell them, “This one will be ideal for you, honey.” Ladies! You wouldn’t let your husbands or boyfriends buy shoes for you, so why let them pick the gun for you? After all, you’re the one that’s going to shoot it. Here’s a tip. If he says that he’ll buy you a gun, ask him if he’ll be prepared to carry it for a few days as his concealed weapon. If the answer is no, then ask the people in the gun shop what they would recommend.
There is another thing that has to be mentioned regarding handgun calibers. Despite Hollywood movies, the bullet has not yet been developed that delivers the knockdown power of a 155mm howitzer shell, combined with the recoil of a .22. If ever they do develop one, I’ll be first in line to buy it! You should also take gun magazine articles claiming that this or that particular bullet is ideal for “one shot stops” with a heavy pinch of salt. Nobody in a life-or-death situation worries about such things. If the threat is still there and you feel like your life is in danger, keep shooting until the threat to your life is over!
The thing to remember is that most criminals are cowards. They don’t want to get shot, and the sight of a person saying no to them while pointing a gun at them usually dissuades them. The caliber of the weapon you are using is of secondary importance. The main factor is the person behind the gun, which is you.
[ Tony Walker is the President of SAS Training, Inc., based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He and his wife Vannessa teach advanced self-defensive shooting classes, as well as Arizona Concealed Carry classes. He is the author of ‘How to Win a Gunfight’, a manual of real-life shooting techniques, and has also written ‘Snides’, an action thriller featuring Ex-British SAS Trooper John Pilgrim and his feisty, sharp shooting American wife Sally. His next book, ‘Pilgrim’s Banner’ will be available later this year. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can check out his web site at www.johnpilgrimbooks.com ]