Very early on in my self-defense journey, an instructor said to me, “Use a handgun of the largest caliber you can fire accurately.”
That statement seemed to make sense until I realized I was a pretty good shot with my Ruger Redhawk .44 Magnum. I even did pretty well in the local bowling-pin shoots with that big blaster. I just could not find a good concealment holster for it.
Time went on, and I became acquainted with different firearms. Then, along came the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which restricted handgun magazines to 10 rounds. At about the same time, there was a huge push for the passage of concealed carry laws. Suddenly, every gun maker in the country was making compact pistols with 10-round magazines. I may have hated the magazine restrictions, but otherwise, it really was the golden age of carry guns.
Round-count restrictions and the rise of small, easy-to-carry pistols fanned the flames of the great caliber debate. As you know, those embers burn bright and do not need much fanning to erupt into a conflagration. If you read gun magazines between 1993 and 2003, you know what I’m talking about. You saw the headlines:
.380 ACP Suitable for Defense?
9mm vs. .45 ACP: We Take Yet Another Look!
Is The .40 S&W Short & Weak?
Every magazine had writers with opinions. Should we use big, slow bullets or small, fast bullets? What’s wrong with big and fast bullets? It wasn’t even fun reading those stories after a while.
The entire time, I had a nagging idea in the back of my brain. There was a little voice that told me I didn’t want to get shot with any bullet of any caliber — ever. If other people were having the same thought, they were not saying anything like that in print. But dash-camera videos were starting to appear in training circles, and people were starting to see the real actions and reactions of people involved in gunfights. These real-life videos let people dissect every element of a gunfight, including the caliber of the guns used. I watched lots of videos. Somewhere along the line, I saw the 1992 murder of South Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper Mark Coates. At that point, I began to seriously question the conventional wisdom of the debate that told us caliber was important.
Trooper Coates was patrolling I-95 when, during a traffic stop, a man with a five-shot .22 LR revolver killed him. Trooper Coates shot his attacker five times with a .357 Magnum. The attacker lived. Trooper Coates was hit by two rounds and died.
Does this mean I suggest you carry a .22 LR revolver for personal defense? It does not, but it does not mean you should not carry one. If that is all you have or all you can afford or all you are able to handle, any gun is better than no gun.
The truth of the matter is that shot placement is more important than caliber when it comes to self-defense. Additionally, after studying with the Force Science Institute, I learned that the most important factor in handgun stopping power is the psychological one. Most handgun wounds are not fatal. In fact, regardless of caliber, most handgun wounds do not even produce a mechanical stop. The bullets do not do enough damage to force a person to stop fighting. What most often causes people to stop fighting is the realization that they have been shot. Once a bullet hits them, they simply lose the will to fight. You might find that one criminal in 10,000 who is going to fight through anything, but the odds are that your attacker is a coward and will break off the attack at the first sign of gunfire.
Some rounds are most certainly better than others, but I am not going to demand that you use the latest, greatest, fastest, deepest-penetrating, Navy-SEAL-approved Black Death projectile. I want you to train with any gun you plan to fight with so that you can get your first round on target. Having all your subsequent rounds on target would be a bonus.
Carry a gun. Learn to shoot that gun well. Never give up the fight until you are dead. That is how you win a gunfight. Ten years after the gunfight, no one will know the caliber. They will know only whether you lived or died.