If you listen to some of the posturing in gun stores and on firearm related forums, you could honestly swear that anything beginning with .4 in the chambering was a death dealing super cannon wreaking havoc on bad guys everywhere. The honest answer is that caliber choice isn’t really that simple, gone are the days of somewhat unreliable expansion in good defensive ammunition which leads to a lot more freedom in choosing a defensive sidearm. Factor in no longer needing to rely upon downing a potential adversary with standard ball ammunition, unless you are a member of the armed forces, and the distinction blurs even further. So, let’s take a look at some of the common defensive calibers and what choice can be made in arming yourself.
9mm: Baby’s First Centerfire or Viable Service Round?
9×19 Parabellum gets something of a bad rap by some of the old salts championing the .40 and .45. The caliber itself has been in existence since the .45 ACP was also in its infancy, but is a little more forgiving on the beginning shooter if they aren’t used to recoil impulses. Now, proper technique, stances, and practice really overcome any problems many have, but I feel the 9mm is still highly viable choice. Ignoring the aspect of it being the most common centerfire pistol caliber globally, the 9mm has a lot to offer for shooters of any experience level.
The first point to mention is capacity, your standard plastic fantastic service pistol can hold anywhere between 17 to 19 rounds of 9mm ammunition, which as a sidearm is a fantastic option. There has never been a gunfight where the winner has wanted less ammunition. My favored load for the 9mm is the Winchester Ranger series 127gr +P+, which screams out at 1250fps. Expansion is favorable as can be seen in the linked image.
Recoil impulse is on the lighter side, as was mentioned, and allows the shooter to get back on target even faster for follow up shots. This is a crucial point, because the time between your splits on 9mm or .40 may be a hair longer on the .40, but that second round impacting makes a world of difference if shot placement is adequate.
9mm is sort of my standard for carry and defensive use as a sidearm, which isn’t to say I favor it, but it is one I highly recommend to shooters of all levels of training.
.40 S&W: Diet 10mm or Bridging The Gap Between 9mm and .45?
.40 S&W has a bit of an odd history with shooters, I remember for the longest time it was favored over the .45 because of capacity and favored over the 9mm because of perceived stopping power. .40 offers greater surface area which should create larger wound cavitation, which it does. However, the recoil impulse on the .40 can be somewhat harsh on more common models, snappier than its elder sibling the 10mm due to the size of the handgun itself.
Once you find a favorable platform the .40 is quite the performer however, with great expansion and a fairly zippy speed of 1092 fps in the Speer 165gr GDHP. Speer has been a long held metric for great performance in the caliber and continues to provide an effective round.
.357 Sig: One Trick Pony or Magnum Power in a 9mm Package?
.357 Sig is a cartridge I’ve never really warmed up to, but I can definitely see the benefits of adoption. The round was developed to emulate the performance of the fabled 125gr .357 Magnum load, which saw effective use in fabled one shot stops in the hands of law enforcement. However, the reality of the .357 Sig in defensive use is a little more dubious, with handguns being relatively uncommon in the chambering and the ammunition being more expensive than 9mm or .40 S&W.
As I’ve stated many times, proficiency with a sidearm is a must, and with ammunition being more uncommon in my area it isn’t really a round I have a lot of experience in shooting. That being said, it does perform well with the 125gr Winchester Ranger launching the bullet out at a scorching 1350 fps.
.45 ACP: Old Warhorse or Outdated Fat Rounds for an Obsolete Gun?
Ah, the .45 ACP, a round held in reverence in the American zeitgeist. .45 ACP is a favorite of mine, not because of ballistic performance, but rather just the form factor of the classic 1911A1 pistol. That being said, the .45 still retains a lot of effectiveness in this day and age. If you can get past the overwhelming size of some .45s, which make full framed 9mm, .40, and .357 Sig pistols look like pea shooters, you might find it to be an adequate sidearm.
I do carry a 1911 on occasion, and the Hornady Critical Duty in 220gr has been a favorite of mine, providing ample penetration and decent ballistic performance at 975 fps.
So, What Do I Choose?
Choosing your ideal caliber isn’t really a matter of figuring out ballistics and checking gel tests, it’s a matter of shooting and learning what actually feels right in your hands. Some people are going to want a 10mm over anything else, and some old ornery fellows are going to sling .357 service revolvers. This isn’t a matter of a caliber being better for social work, but rather a matter of comfort in using said caliber.
A caliber for defensive usage should be comfortable to manage, have a form factor that is a pain to use, and should lead to effective shot placement. If you shoot decent splits with a .40, carry and use a .40. At the end of the day it doesn’t boil down to who hits who with the bigger bullet, but rather who placed their shots in effective areas to neutralize a threat. A bigger round might cause more tissue damage, but it really does just boil down to putting your shots where you need to.
So, as far as caliber choice goes, shoot and shoot some more to learn what works for you.