The Best Caliber for Self-Defense

Dear Fellow Survivalist;

One of the many debates among gun aficionados and those who carry for self-defense is what caliber is the best to carry. Some declare the 9mm Lugar as the best, while others want the .45 ACP; then there’s a group which has decided a compromise position is the way to go, and opt for the .40 ACP. On the fringes of the discussion are those who go for the magnum rounds, either .357 or 44. Each of these groups (and others) have their reasons for their choices. But are those reasons valid?

Let me start out by saying that as far as I’m concerned, there is no one best caliber. Rather, the various calibers have each been developed to accomplish specific purposes. Selecting the right caliber requires comparing the strengths of each caliber with the need and finding the one which has the best chance of accomplishing what you desire.

Another part of this discussion is choosing between revolver and semi-automatic. Rounds which are designed for revolvers, such as the .357 magnum and .44 magnum, don’t work in semi-automatic, due to the difference in the design of the cartridge case, so the type of gun you want to shoot or carry is going to affect this decision to some extent.

So, what I want to do is concentrate on the strengths of each caliber, more so than their weaknesses. After all, it is those strengths which are ultimately going to be what we base our decisions on. All the while, we must understand that any such decision is a compromise, for to get what we want, we usually have to give up something else.

Small Caliber Rounds – .380 ACP

Many people speak badly about smaller caliber rounds, like the .22LR. I’ve been guilty of this myself. But we have to remember that a lot of people have been killed by .22s through the years. Because it is not as powerful as larger caliber rounds, the .22 tends to ricochet when it hits bone, making it highly likely that a hit in the body from a .22 will cause serious damage to vital organs.

The .380 ACP is generally seen to be nothing more than a slightly larger .22, with people expecting the same minimal results from it. The small size and low muzzle velocity are what they complain about. But in reality, the bullet diameter of a .380 is larger than a 9mm or a .357 magnum. So the real limitation is the powder charge, which gives it a low muzzle velocity.

However, I have found one really great use for the .380 ACP; that’s for women. Many women have weak hands, making it difficult to impossible for them to rack the slide on a 9mm. My former wife was one of them. So I bought her a .380 because she could use it effectively. Ultimately, that ability to use it is much more important than the higher muzzle velocity of the 9mm or the larger diameter of the .45. The gun and the cartridge have to match the abilities of the person using them.

9mm Luger

The 9mm Luger or 9mm NATO is the most popular pistol cartridge in the world today. This lowers the price of both the cartridges and the guns, making them affordable to people who might otherwise not be able to buy them. That alone makes the 9mm an important cartridge to consider. Even though I don’t personally carry a 9mm, my main practice and survival sidearm is chambered in 9mm.

The 9mm Luger was created for penetrating power. Other than the FN Five-seveN, which uses the same bullet as the 5.57mm NATO round, it has the greatest penetrating power of any pistol round on the market. This is in part due to the powder charge giving it a high muzzle velocity and in part due to the bullet geometry, which is more pointed than most pistol bullets.

Penetration is important in a defensive round, especially if you are face with an adversary who presents their side to you. The 9mm round will easily penetrate through an arm, to enter the body cavity and hit vital organs. That’s what it was designed for; and it does it quite well. So if penetration is an important attribute in your selection of pistol rounds, then the 9mm is probably the best caliber that you can choose for your personal sidearm.

.45 ACP

You could say that the 9mm and the .45 ACP are at opposite ends of the spectrum, when it comes to penetration. While the 9mm was developed for penetration, the .45 was not. It was designed for energy transfer, what most people refer to as “knockdown power.”

The .45 ACP was developed in response to a real threat that the US Army was facing in the Philippines, fighting against Moro tribesmen. The Moros would be high on drugs when they attacked, so they did not feel the hits of the .38 Special round, which was the standard sidearm issued at that time. A round was needed which would stop these tribesmen by literally knocking them down. The large diameter and blunt nose of the .45 made it ideal for this. It is actually very poor for penetration.

This original purpose of the .45 round makes it ideal for use in situations where there is a likelihood of encountering criminals who are on drugs. For this reason, it is my personal favorite for a carry round. However, in doing so, I recognize that I am taking a risk by not having a round with greater penetration.

.40 ACP

The .40 ACP was developed as a compromise between the 9mm and the .45, promising to give the best of both worlds. For this reason, it has been a very popular round amongst law enforcement officers and organizations. However, it doesn’t fulfill that promise.

The .40 ACP has the same basic bullet geometry as the .45, but with a smaller overall diameter. While it has a greater muzzle velocity, it doesn’t have the penetrating power of the 9mm, because of being a blunt bullet. Nor does it have the energy transfer of the .45, because it has an area of almost 20% less. So it doesn’t give you penetration or knockdown power. In other words, the compromise gives us the worst of both worlds, rather than the best.

By the way, the information given above is based upon my own ballistic testing, not just theoretical mumbo-jumbo I found. I’ve actually tested a variety of different rounds on a variety of different material. The results were really eye opening. So, when I say that the 9mm is best for penetration and the .45 is best for knockdown power, I’m doing it based upon reality, not just theory.

So, make your pick, based upon the threat you see. And as always, keep your powder dry and your survival gear close at hand.

Dr. Rich

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