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Grant Cunningham

Defensive Revolver Calibers

A defensive revolver needs the right defensive ammunition, here's a rundown on choosing the right load.

This is an excerpt from Grant Cunningham's new book, Defensive Revolver Fundamentals, 2nd Edition.

Years of shooting data have shown that the best defensive ammunition uses a hollow point bullet that expands reliably in the target and penetrates sufficiently to reach vital organs. There may be instances where that choice isn't possible, but under most circumstances, the modern hollow point is what's needed.

Since most defensive revolvers are chambered in .38 Special or .357 Magnum, it shouldn't be surprising that the majority of ammo suitable for self-defense is in these two cartridges.


.38 Special:

Speer’s Short Barrel Gold Dot .38 Special +P load has long been a top performer out of short-barrel .38 Special and .357 Magnum revolvers. It still is.

In .38 Special, the best results seem to come from the mid- to heavy-weight bullets (135 to 158 grains) in +P loadings. When I wrote the first edition, the Speer Gold Dot Hollow Point (GDHP) +P 135 grain stood out. A decade later, renamed “Gold Dot Short Barrel Personal Protection .38 Special +P,” it's still the dominant bullet in the category. Developed initially for the NYPD for backup and off-duty guns, it's racked up many shootings and has performed exceptionally well. Most modern lightweight revolvers shoot this load to the point of aim.

Also, in that first edition, Winchester had a new load called the PDX1 Defender, which was promising. Today, renamed “Defender,” it uses the same 130-grain jacketed hollowpoint bullet in a +P load and has developed a good track record in police backup guns around the country. The bullet is intelligently engineered and has been turning in good performances. I wouldn't hesitate to use it in my own guns.

Today, the new load is Federal's HST 130-grain +P, which is developing a good reputation. It's especially suitable for the new generation of short-barrel, lightweight revolvers.

An older load that has a very long track record of decent (though not outstanding) performance is the 158-grain +P lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint (LSWCHP). This load has been offered by Winchester, Remington and Federal at various times and has the virtue of being relatively inexpensive and packaged in 50-round boxes. Based on diameter expansion in my testing, I prefer Remington, Federal and Winchester — in that order. The load generally shoots to point-of-aim in older revolvers. It wouldn't be my first choice, but it's still usable. Be aware that some people find the recoil of the heavy bullet to be painful.

.357 Magnum:

The 125-grain hollow point (left) is the usual recommendation in .357 Magnum, but the author prefers the Speer 135-grain load (right).

The .357 Magnum has long been ruled by the 125-grain semi-jacketed hollow point (SJHP) loads from the major ammunition makers. It's the load that defined the .357 as a “manstopper” back in the 1970s and '80s (though recent analysis of shooting data by experts such as Greg Ellifritz casts doubt on that reputation). The 125-grain load has a mixed record; when it worked, it worked very well, but it sometimes expanded far too quickly, leading to shallow and ineffective wounds.

While I don't recommend that most people carry a magnum of any type these days, primarily because of the much greater difficulty in controlling the gun in strings of fire, for those who insist, I suggest a more modern and slightly heavier bullet. Speer makes its excellent 135-grain Gold Dot GDHP in .357, and that would be my pick for its ability to maintain structural integrity in the target. Hornady also loads a 135-grain “Flexlock” bullet in its Critical Duty line, which should also perform well.

Once you move away from those calibers, the pickings get very slim. 

.327 Magnum: 

(above) Often overlooked because of its smaller caliber, the .327 Federal Magnum offers a serious punch. It’s capable of pushing these 115-grain Speer Gold Dot bullets well beyond the FBI’s suggested minimum penetration depth for duty handgun ammunition.

The “Baby Magnum” has issues with getting a bullet of sufficient mass to penetrate deeply enough. What's more, the caliber has fallen out of favor since I wrote the first edition, and the only defensive load on the market that I trust is the Speer Gold Dot 100-grain GDHP. To the best of my knowledge, there are still no actual defensive shootings using this load and caliber sufficiently analyzed for us to derive any solid conclusions. The recommendation is still based on seeing the results of gelatin testing. 

.44 Special:

Carry Caliber 44 Special Speer 2

This cartridge is the very picture of an on-again, off-again round. There are times when everyone seems to rediscover this old cartridge, and ammunition suddenly becomes widely available, only to disappear as people move on to something else. I've watched this same sequence replay itself several times over the years.

The technical problem with this load is the same as faced by the .38 Special: lack of bullets that expand reliably and penetrate sufficiently. In addition, there are very few defensive shootings on record with this caliber, which further complicates matters.

Today, the .44 Special seems to be “on again,” and there are several loads worth considering. My original recommendation, based on talking with people who use the .44 Special for hunting, is still available: the 200-grain Winchester Silvertip. This round is still the top pick in a relatively narrow field, followed by the 200-grain Speer Gold Dot and the newer Hornady 165-grain Critical Defense (which is very promising, but reliable information on its performance is hard to come by).

.44 Magnum:

Straight Walled Cartridge 2

“Dirty Harry” notwithstanding, the .44 Magnum is a poor round for self-defense, being overly penetrative and challenging to control for all but the most experienced of handgunners. However, there may be circumstances where you need a revolver that can do double duty for hunting and self-defense against criminal attacks in the field and might be pressed into protective service.

The first preference would be to use one of the .44 Special rounds listed above in such cases. If those aren't available, it's preferable to pick a relatively lightweight (no more than 200 grains) hollow point to limit the round's penetration. My recommendation (and the only one that fits the criteria) is still the Hornady Custom 180-grain XTP load.

The preceding is not intended to endorse anything other than the .38 caliber revolver for self-defense. I'm of the considered opinion that when recoil and terminal effects are considered together, it is still the optimum choice for defensive shooting.

What About +P Ammo?

Remember that hollow points expend some of their energy expanding in diameter, but that energy can't be used to drive the same bullet forward. There is no such thing as a free lunch; if you want the bullet to expand, it will use energy. If there is too little of it to start with, there won't be enough left to carry the bullet on its path.

In those cases, the expanded bullet will stop forward movement too soon, which results in very shallow wounds that don't reach vital organs. As such, you don't find many expanding bullets in standard .38 Special cartridges — there just isn't enough energy to drive a bullet deeply into the target and expand it simultaneously.

The answer is to start with more energy, enough to expand the bullet and penetrate sufficiently. This task is often accomplished with “+P” ammunition, simply a cartridge loaded beyond “normal” pressure. The +P loading boosts the cartridge's energy to accomplish a specific task. 

A common misunderstanding of +P loadings is that they're useless since they don't increase power considerably. Here's the thing: they don't need a lot more, just enough to change the performance envelope. 

In .38 Special, the best loads are all of the +P variety.

The idea behind the +P load is to add enough energy to reliably deliver an expanded bullet deeply enough to do its job. If a normal-pressure load can't quite deliver that bullet to where it needs to, but a slightly hotter +P version does, then that is sufficient for the task at hand.

It's important to understand that you don't need vast increases in power for defensive applications; you simply need enough power to perform the twin tasks of reaching vital parts and destroying them. Some will argue that it's better to have a more significant reserve of energy on tap than a +P, but everything comes at a price. In the chapters on technique, we'll delve into that concept more. 

Ammunition For The Recoil Sensitive

Many people, particularly those with ultra-light revolvers, find that the recoil of .38 Special +P ammunition is too much to comfortably handle. Sadly, there aren't a lot of alternatives; the Special, in standard-velocity loadings, isn't well known as a fight-ending cartridge.

Many “low-recoil” loads are now available in .38 Special, but they all combine a very lightweight projective clad in a tough jacket that generally doesn't expand at .38 Special velocities. 

The only choice I can recommend for the recoil sensitive is the old 148-grain wadcutter target load. It actually has some good traits: the flat-nose profile cuts a full-sized channel through the target and retains enough energy to penetrate adequately. The downside of the profile is that it's harder to reload quickly. Some will argue against its use, but it performs better than any round-nosed or fully jacketed bullet in the caliber from what I've seen. It would not be my first choice, except for those cases where +P ammunition is not an option.

What About .22 LR And .22 WMR?

There is no shortage of snobbishness in the defensive shooting world. For instance, most defensive shooting trainers look down on revolvers, and nearly everyone disparages the so-called “pipsqueak” calibers — the .22 Long Rifle and .22 Magnum.

The .22 calibers, more commonly found in rifles than in handguns, are the most prolifically produced ammunition on the planet. It's estimated that some 2 to 2.5 billion rounds of .22 LR alone are made every year. 

CCI’s Stinger load is a wonderful option for the .22 LR. It hits a little harder than the Velocitor load, but won’t penetrate as deep.

Given their ubiquity, it's a sure bet that some of them get pressed into use against attackers. And they do. While precise data is sketchy, they are often (though not always) effective in that role.

But should the .22 be considered a viable defensive choice?

First, the good news: a .22, even the Magnum version, will have minimal recoil fired from a revolver. It's much easier to make accurate rapid-fire hits with it than any other caliber (and, it must be said, they're an awful lot of fun on the range). For someone who is genuinely recoil-averse, that's a significant benefit.

The bad news: except in rare instances, the .22 simply isn't as immediately effective as a larger caliber bullet. No matter how adroitly fans of the .22 cartridges try to argue their point, it isn't and never will be. 

However, in self-defense, doing something is usually better than doing nothing. And a .22 revolver, even though it doesn't have the reputation of its larger-caliber cousins, is a better tool than empty hands and loud words. While I wouldn't necessarily recommend any .22 revolver as an unqualified first choice, in some instances, it may be the best alternative — if the other choice is to be unarmed.

Hornady’s Critical Defense load for the .22 Magnum will deliver decent expansion and good penetration even when fired from short-barreled handguns.

If you or someone you know is considering a .22 for personal protection, there are a few caveats you should heed. First, most .22 handguns are single-action revolvers; these are never good for self-defense. Their light single-action triggers are a liability in shaky hands, and they're challenging to fire rapidly, which is necessary for the small .22-caliber. Not only that, but they require practice and attention to detail to de-cock safely, should a shot not be fired. If you're considering a .22, stick to the few double-action models available.

Second, choose the heavier bullets in the cartridges. For the .22 Long Rifle, that would be the 40-grain projectiles. In the .22 Magnum, the 45-grain bullets are preferred. Expansion of these smaller rounds will not be significant (and may even reduce necessary penetration), so solid bullets are preferable.

Practice with these rounds should focus on delivering many shots in one volley accurately to the most vulnerable part of the target to maximize the potential of the tiny bullets. That should be achievable by even the most recoil-shy.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt of Defensive Revolver Fundamentals, 2nd Edition.

More Defensive Revolver Info:

Tactical Revolver Reloads: The Speed Strip

The use of a speed strip is an excellent way to expedite tactical revolver reloads, but they require some skill to properly use.

This is an excerpt from Grant Cunningham's new book, Defensive Revolver Fundamentals, 2nd Edition.

The SpeedStrip, Tuffstrip and other similar products are rubber strips that hold rounds by their rims. (SpeedStrip, like “Kleenex,” is a brand name that's come to be used to refer to any such devices. It's a registered trademark of Bianchi International.) Generically referred to as speed strips, these loaders hold the rounds in a row, so they're flat and convenient to carry. 

Since speed strips are only used to insert two rounds simultaneously, they're much slower and more dependent on fine motor skills than speedloaders. To help compensate for their shortcomings, I have a specific way of configuring and using them.


First, carry only four rounds in your strips. Start at the tab end and load two rounds, leave one blank space, and load two more rounds leaving a leftover space at the other end. This setup provides a handling tab at each end and one in the middle. 


No matter how you wind up grabbing the strip, you'll have a way to hang onto it and sufficient space to get your fingers in to manipulate the rounds as they go into the cylinder. This makes a big difference when peeling the strip off the rounds after inserting the cartridges into the chambers.


Retrieve the strip (I prefer carrying them in a back pocket or the watch pocket of a pair of jeans) and insert two rounds into adjacent chambers. Again, proprioception is your friend: bring the ammo toward the palm of the hand holding the cylinder, wiggle slightly to get the bullet noses started into the chambers and push the rounds in. Then ‘peel' the strip off the case heads, allowing them to drop the rest of the way into the cylinder. 


If time permits, do the same with the other two rounds. I don't shift the strip in my hand; I simply use the heel of my palm to push them into the chambers and then peel off the strip.

Now drop the strip and close the cylinder. You're back in business.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt of Defensive Revolver Fundamentals, 2nd Edition.

More On Defensive Revolvers:

How To Pick A Shooting Range For Self-Defense Practice

Sadly, there just aren’t a lot of shooting ranges that are conducive to good defensive shooting practice. If you have a range nearby that meets the following criteria, you’re in luck — and also in the minority.

An ideal shooting range would allow you:

  • free movement relative to the target;
  • to set up targets in at least a 270-degree spread;
  • to shoot those targets on angles;
  • to draw from your holster;
  • to fire as many shots as you deemed necessary;
  • to fire those shots at the fastest speed you could muster while still getting the hits;
  • to look behind you while safely holding a loaded gun; and
  • to shoot past dusk, or to turn off the lights to simulate low-light conditions.

shooting range - berm

As I said, that describes precious few shooting ranges. Most ranges restrict your activities in some way: don’t allow you to use “humanoid” targets; require you to set up targets in front of one specific berm; require you to always be at right angles to the targets, never shooting ‘cross lane’; don’t allow drawing from a holster; restrict the number of rounds per string; specify a specific shooting speed; don’t allow you to do anything other than look downrange when holding a firearm; and don’t allow shooting past a certain time or with the lights turned low. Indoor ranges are the most likely to have these kinds of limitations.

The reason for these kinds of restrictions comes down to either liability concerns or shooting prejudice. The liability part is somewhat understandable: The range can’t verify the training level of everyone present, and since most shooters are, in fact, untrained (or under-trained), they enact and enforce strict range rules to prevent accidents. While I don’t like those kinds of places, I do understand their concerns.

It’s the ranges with shooting prejudices I dislike. What do I mean by this? Those ranges, usually run by gun clubs, restrict certain activities because they’re not somehow proper or polite. I once knew a board member of a gun club who didn’t want anyone to use even a vaguely human silhouette because he thought guns were to be used strictly for hunting game animals. Some don’t like rapid fire because it’s not done in Olympic bullseye or trap shooting. If a certain interest in the shooting community doesn’t happen to be their interest, they’ll use their power of regulation to prevent it from happening on their turf.

shooting range - defensive training

Either way, any restriction is going to affect how and what you’re able to train. For those people whose only choice is an extremely restricted range (no drawing, no rapid fire, no more than a fixed number of rounds in the magazine), here are some ideas to spur further creativity on your part:

  • On ranges where drawing from a holster isn’t allowed, very often you can substitute getting the gun out of a case, loading it rapidly, and shooting. This can simulate a home defense scenario where you’re retrieving your gun from a quick access safe.
  • For those where ‘rapid fire’ isn’t allowed (usually defined as more than one round per second), you can work on a rapid first shot response. Since these ranges usually don’t allow drawing from a holster, either, start with the gun in a high ready position (gun pointed downrange, close to your body at roughly the base of the sternum, elbows tight in to your sides) and quickly extend out as you trigger a shot when you reach extension. 
  • For those that allow only a small number of rounds in a magazine, load them randomly so that you never know how many rounds you’ll be able to fire before being forced to reload. This will give you practice in recognizing the need to reload.

The best solution, of course, is to find a range that will allow you to do the things you need in order to practice realistically. If that means a drive you can only make every few months, make that drive rather than handicap yourself so badly. I’m not of the opinion that ‘any trigger time is good’; under severe restrictions, it may amount to little more than turning money into loud noises.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from Handgun Training – Practice Drills for Defensive Shooting.

Concealed Carry: The Secret to Effective Reload Practice

The fundamentals of learning to reload you defensive pistol.

Practice makes perfect, unless it's the wrong kind of practice. And from the standpoint of prepping for defensive handgun use, dry reload practice might be more of a hindrance than help.

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It’s tempting to practice your reloads to make them faster. Many in the business will prescribe such things as weighted dummy practice magazines, or real magazines loaded with Snap-Caps or weighted dummy rounds, to practice with.

My experience doing this in a competition environment was not altogether successful: While I got really fast at the manipulation part, that didn’t help everything else that went along with the need to reload my gun.

What I see with most students is that the recognition of slide lock – the indication to perform the learned skill of reloading the gun – is usually (and usually by far) the most inefficient part of the process.

That brief period of time while they stop to analyze what happened and then decide to initiate that reload almost always exceeds the time they shaved on the manipulation portion by doing endless dry repetitions of the reload. It was certainly the case with me.

Dry practice omits that stimulus of achieving slide lock in a string of fire. In dry practice, the slide is pre-locked to the rear; there is no stimulus of the slide dynamically locking itself to the rear, no change in recoil pattern because of the difference in weight distribution and no sensation of the slide failing to return to battery.

All of those things, taken together, are what tell you that your gun is out of ammunition and needs to be recharged. Without that, you have to spend time analyzing why the gun isn’t running and then decide to initiate the reload. With that stimulus, you can use the brain’s ability for recognition and recall to make that decision (and execute that decision) far more efficiently.

I’ll recommend some dry practice simply to get used to the mechanics of the reload, particularly if the student is having trouble in that area, but beyond that I believe it’s far more important to practice that skill in context, in the manner that you’ll actually need to use it.

That means shooting to experience slide lock and developing the ability to perform the reload in direct response to that stimulus, without cognitive thought. The only way to do that is to use live ammunition on a real range.

Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from Defensive Pistol Fundamentals available at GunDigestStore.com.

Mastering the Semi-Auto Pistol

In Defensive Pistol Fundamentals, Grant Cunningham discusses the concepts, skills, and equipment you’ll need to overcome this worst-case scenario. While the concepts and skills discussed can certainly be utilized while using a variety of different firearms, this guide specifically covers the use of a semiautomatic pistol. Get Your Copy Now

Handgun Drills: The Things To Practice – Part 2

Handgun drills, the things to practice.

Here are 12 things to focus on perfecting while training handgun drills at the range.

A shooting response to a lethal threat is a complex series of observations and reactions. There are a number of skills involved in a successful response, and luckily for us, our innate abilities developed over millennia help us tremendously. Learning to use a specific tool like a firearm, however, is not an innate or “instinctive” skill — it’s something we learn to do in concert with what we already know and do.

So, what are the kinds of things you need to train and practice? In no particular order, here are just a few of the things you might need to be able to do quickly and efficiently:

  1. 12 handgun drills points to focus on. Get a proper grasp on the gun
  2. Bring the gun from the holster to the target
  3. Decide if and when you need to shoot, and when you need to stop shooting
  4. Retrieve the pistol from a storage device
  5. Use the gun in concert with illumination of some type
  6. Reload the gun when it runs out of ammunition
  7. Clear a malfunction
  8. Recognize the level of precision to which you need to shoot
  9. Deliver that level of precision on target
  10. Deal with more than one attacker
  11. Shoot rapid, multiple rounds to an appropriate level of precision
  12. Shoot one-handed

Of course there’s a lot more, but this should give you an idea of what this concept of “task-oriented” training means: practicing those things that are actually needed in a defensive shooting.

Click here to read Part I.

Handgun Drills: The Things To Practice – Part 1

An equipment bias causes you to try to tailor your training around your gear, trying to find situations or make up techniques just to be able to utilize that equipment.
An equipment bias causes you to try to tailor your training around your gear, trying to find situations or make up techniques just to be able to utilize that equipment.

Effective handgun shooting drills are task-oriented; they’re designed to provide practice opportunities for the tasks most likely required in an actual defensive shooting. What, then, are the things we need to practice?

This is a common question in the defensive shooting world. Many people have tried to answer it but, unfortunately, a dispassionate, fact-based answer is difficult to come by. This is because most people answer the question not from the kind of research done by leaders in the field like Claude Werner and Tom Givens, but from biases based on their own shooting activities or careers.

Some people come with an equipment bias: they do certain things because they like the equipment, then search for ways in which to use that equipment and do drills which validate their equipment selections. Certain types of gear will dictate that you do things a certain way, or that you use them instead of something more suitable. An equipment bias limits what you’ll do (or can do or can train) to things that fit what you have, rather than making what you have fit the task at hand.

A competition bias too often leads to taking shortcuts in technique (or equipment) selection just to get a better score.
A competition bias too often leads to taking shortcuts in technique (or equipment) selection just to get a better score.

Take, for instance, a flashlight mounted on a handgun. There are certainly uses for such devices, but they’re pretty specific and are never a substitute for other forms of illumination. Too many folks, however, will practice their “low light” drills with these exclusively, to the detriment of actually being able to use better-suited and more common illumination tools — things like handheld flashlights (or even room light switches!). This particular gear bias results in low-light drills being designed that don’t accurately reflect the conditions under which supplementary lighting might really be needed.

The “bump in the night” that results in your muzzle sweeping your teenage child coming home past his bedtime might be the unfortunate result of such an equipment bias.

Equipment isn’t the only bias people have, of course. Some come to the discussion with a source bias: because a drill or technique comes from an authoritative or charismatic figure, people often feel compelled to practice and promote it even though it may not fit the context under which it will be used. The implicit correctness which we perceive because of the source’s pedigree is a form of the logical fallacy “appeal to authority,” where the merits of the proposal aren’t discussed because of the unimpeachable nature of the source. Many of the military-inspired training routines that have nothing to do with private sector defensive shooting come from source bias.

There is also a scoring bias: we practice to improve ourselves by some objective measure, even if that measure has no real bearing on our ability to defend ourselves. This is heavily prevalent in the shooting world, owing to the number of competition shooters who have moved into the training realm over the years. (This is not to discount the value of competition as a test bed for new techniques and equipment, you understand, only to put their interest in objective scoring into perspective.)

In Part II, the author outlines the specific things needed during practice for a successful execution of a defensive gun use.

Dynamics of Efficient Defensive Shooting

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Defensive shooting calls into a play a much different skill set than those utilized for precision shooting.
Defensive shooting calls into a play a much different skill set than those utilized for precision shooting.

Will becoming a ‘better’ shooter help in a self-defense situation?

Seeking artificially high levels of precision, beyond what the target requires, during an incident is counterproductive to efficient defensive shooting. Working to simply become a better shooter, in other words spending time learning to deliver artificially high levels of precision, may not be the best way to train to survive violent encounters.

There isn’t a single level of precision appropriate to all encounters. Your need for accuracy (actually hitting the target area) doesn’t change, but the recognized precision (which tells you how carefully you need to shoot) certainly does.

Your highest efficiency in training is attained by focusing your efforts on being able to deliver appropriate levels of precision – no more, no less – on demand, as quickly as you can, without cognitive thought as to the application of your skill. The recognition of the precision needed should trigger a recall of the skills necessary to achieve it.

<em><strong>Editor's Note</strong>: This article is an excerpt of <a href="https://www.gundigeststore.com/defensive-pistol-fundamentals?utm_source=gundigest.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=gd-esb-at-150511-DefensivePistol" target="_blank">Grant Cunningham's Defensive Pistol Fundamentals</a>.</em>
Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt of Grant Cunningham's Defensive Pistol Fundamentals.

Allowing yourself to shoot the same target over and over, focusing only on speed, is not practicing realistically. You have nothing to recognize (or, more precisely, nothing to practice recognizing) because the precision needed has been statically and arbitrarily predetermined. Your drills become a choreographed and overly mechanical test of muscle control, and you end up focusing on the anticipation of the shot as opposed to the recognition of the need to shoot.

In order to build the recognition and associative recall ability that makes for expertise, you must reduce anticipation by including options in your drills. Those options must be presented randomly, forcing the you to recognize the precision needed and then recall the necessary skills to make accurate shots inside of that area.

It’s the association of the recognition and the recalled skill that forms the links necessary for this highly efficient decision making to happen. That can’t occur unless for any given drill there is more than one option, and it’s presented randomly.

Any attempt to define a “good defensive shooting group,” regardless of what the definition may be, dooms the process to failure because there is no recognition for you to have.



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CCW: Best Calibers for Self-Defense?

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Author’s choice in defensive calibers: 9mm and .38 Special.
Author’s choice in defensive calibers: 9mm and .38 Special.

Your goal, should you ever need to shoot, is to get your attacker to stop. Grant Cunningham reveals what he thinks are the best calibers for self-defense to make sure that happens.

Now you’d think that with about 150 years of defensive handgunning history at our fingertips we’d have an absolute, ironclad, incontrovertible picture as to what works best to stop a bad guy. You’d be wrong. The reason is because a lot of things work and every shooting is different.

There just isn’t one good, standard way of looking at each individual shooting and decide what happened, because every bullet wound is different and every bad guy is different. Add in different calibers and bullet types and distances and number of shots and… well, you get the idea. There are just too many variables to come up with precise answers.

Over the years, however, researchers like Greg Ellifritz at Active Response Training have come up with a pretty good set of data that helps us to see what generally works and what generally doesn’t.

As it happens, when you look at the most common defensive calibers – 9mm, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W and .45ACP – there isn’t a whole lot of statistical difference between them in terms of their ability to stop an attacker.

This runs counter to a lot of gun store gossip, and you’ll find lots of people who just “feel” that their favorite caliber is head and shoulders above everyone else’s, but the best data we have says there just isn’t a huge difference.

I like to say that there is a floor of effectiveness, and once you’ve risen above that floor, caliber is no longer a deciding factor in effectiveness. At least, it shouldn’t be.

Rapid, Multiple Shots

One of the interesting things that came out of Ellifritz’s data is that it’s not caliber which reliably predicts whether an attacker is stopped; it’s the number of rounds fired that actually hit a vital area of the target that stops people. In other words, two rounds of a “lesser” caliber beats a single round of a “better” caliber. More rounds on target as quickly as possible is what ends fights, not the “power” of the round – as long as it reaches the “floor” I alluded to earlier.

For this reason I recommend that you consider a 9mm handgun (aka 9mm Parabellum, 9mm Luger, 9x19mm). The 9mm, loaded with just about any modern defensive hollowpoint ammunition, is effective and most importantly is easy to shoot well. No matter how well you shoot a “bigger” caliber, you’ll shoot a 9mm better – faster at any given level of precision.

Since it’s the number of rounds on target which really determines effectiveness, and the faster you can get those rounds on target the faster the bad guy is going to stop, the 9mm simply makes sense. Many of the top defensive shooting trainers in the country have moved to and endorse the 9mm for this very reason. For those who decide on a revolver, the equivalent is the .38 Special.

Do you agree? Log in and leave a comment below.

Thoughts on Dry Fire Practice

Running your pistol sans ammunition is a good way to develop a steady sight picture and trigger pull. But there might be a way to get more out of your dry fire training.
Running your pistol sans ammunition is a good way to develop a steady sight picture and trigger pull. But there might be a way to get more out of your dry fire training.

Dry fire should be an important part of any firearms training, but are shooters getting all they can out of the practice? Grant Cunningham suggests there is a more productive way to get the most out of pulling the trigger sans ammo.

Practicing a smooth trigger press is quite difficult with live ammunition; the recoil of the gun masks movement of the sights (and the “feel” needed when first learning the double actions). That recoil also interferes with your ability to judge if you’re correctly maintaining your grasp pressure.

Dry firing allows you to divorce the act from the recoil and lets you feel what a proper trigger is really like. Dry fire also makes it easy to feel grasp strength and if you’re maintaining it consistently. Paying close attention to these things in dry fire will make a huge difference in live fire control.

While some may scoff at this, I’m generally not an advocate of extensive dry fire practice for defensive shooting. That isn’t to say that it’s completely useless, though, because some – of the right kind and in the right proportion – can be extremely helpful in developing proper trigger control.

I recommend doing just enough dry fire practice at home that you develop the ability to maintain a perfect sight alignment for the full stroke (press and return) of the trigger 100% of the time. Once you’ve achieved that, I maintain that further dry fire in isolation is of little value. That doesn’t mean dry fire is completely useless, only that it might be best done at a different time and place.

In my experience, I found that once I actually fixed in my mind what proper trigger control felt like, any further dry firing was better done at the range just before live fire. This immediate transition from the lessons of dry fire to the application of those lessons in live fire provides far more benefit than endlessly dry firing off the range.

I suggest that when you go to the range start by doing a few dry fire repetitions, perhaps a dozen or so, which will be an immense help in fixing in your mind exactly what your hands should be doing. Immediately switching to live fire allows you to transfer the skills to actual shooting. My students have often reported that doing so makes both their dry fire and live fire sessions much more productive.

Editor's Note: This article is a excerpt from Grant Cunningham's Defensive Pistol Fundamentals.

Shoulder Holsters and Carry Angle

The Galco VHS, or Vertical Shoulder Holster System is ambidextrous and can be purchased for a wide range of pistol and revolver models.
The Galco VHS, or Vertical Shoulder Holster System is ambidextrous and can be purchased for a wide range of pistol and revolver models. Photo courtesy of Galco.

Shoulder holsters can be configured to carry handguns vertically (with the muzzle pointing straight up or straight down), horizontally, or at a 45-degree angle. Grant Cunningham explains the pros and cons.

Vertical Shoulder Holsters

Vertical holsters with the muzzle pointing up are generally referred to as upside-down holsters. They are very concealable, but because the butt of the gun is pointing toward the back and is on the backside of centerline, they are the hardest with which to achieve a good firing grip.

They are also limited in terms of the barrel length that can be accommodated, with the armpit serving as an upper limit.

Vertical holsters that carry the opposite direction – with the muzzle down – are superb choices for larger guns with longer barrels. (As a point of trivia, Dirty Harry’s six-inch Model 29 was carried in such a holster.)

Some are made to accommodate scoped hunting guns, though obviously not as a piece of concealment gear. Muzzle down holsters are relatively easy to draw from, but do sacrifice a bit of concealment – especially with the longer barrels.

Horizontal Shoulder Holsters

Galco's Miami Classic is a great example of a popular horizontal carry angle shoulder holster. Photo courtesy Galco.
Galco's Miami Classic is a great example of a popular horizontal carry angle shoulder holster. Photo courtesy Galco.

Horizontal holsters seem to be the most commonly available, and they are certainly the easiest to draw from. The gun’s butt is in a position to afford a very natural grip and draw stroke, and the butt is carried the furthest forward of any style.

This makes them not the best choice for concealment, as the gun is carried with its longest dimension cutting across the body’s shortest dimension. The cylinder width is on the midline and pushes both the butt and the muzzle away from the body, leaving the gun in a sort of rocking position that I liken to a turtle on its back.

For more information on concealed carry holsters check out:

The muzzle tends to poke out at the rear and the butt in the front, a clear sign that the wearer has something under his coat. It is also the only shoulder holster where it is impossible to draw without sweeping the muzzle across an unintended target. If one insists on a horizontal holster, I can only recommend sticking to the very shortest barrels and smallest frames.

45-Degree Shoulder Holsters

Those carrying the gun at a 45-degree angle, with the muzzle pointing up, are a workable compromise. The grip is easier to access than an upside-down model, and the geometry of carry makes the gun easier to hide. The 45-degree also works with slightly longer barrels than the horizontal types.

Here’s something that might surprise you: most men, in my experience, don’t have the upper body flexibility necessary to draw efficiently or safely from a shoulder holster. Most women do.

The more muscular the man, the less likely it is that he’ll be able to make use of the shoulder holster, while women seem to not be so limited regarding their figure. For this reason I tend to recommend shoulder holsters for women more often than I do for men.

Shoulder holsters are generally available in leather and nylon cloth, though at least one maker has constructed them out of thin polyethylene. I recommend avoiding those made of nylon; I’ve not encountered any that were not cheaply constructed and/or very poorly designed.

If you decide to make the shoulder holster your default concealed carry option, be aware that virtually all shooting schools prohibit their use in class, and I know of no shooting competition which will allow them.

This is an excerpt from Grant Cunningham’s Gun Digest Book of the Revolver.

Picking the Right Concealed Carry Gun

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Ask any five shooters what’s the best gun for self defense, and you’ll get six different answers!
Ask any five shooters what’s the best gun for self defense, and you’ll get six different answers!

Drop into any local gun store or log into any firearms forum on the Internet and ask what the “best carry gun” is. You’ll get a raft of responses, almost all of which are based on what the responders personally like. What’s more, what they personally like may or may not be based on anything other than hearsay – or what their buddies like.

Let’s look at it a little more logically; choosing a concealed carry gun is really about reaching the right balance for you. You have to consider size, power, efficiency and capacity in your deliberations, and each variable affects the others.

Revolver or Auto for Concealed Carry?

This is an age-old debate. They each have their adherents, and they are somewhat complementary in their capabilities. There are some vital differences however, and you should go into either choice with your eyes open.

Arguments for the autoloader:
-Greater capacity
-Flatter for better concealment
-Easier to reload under stress
-Easier to shoot well (better triggers)
-Greater selection of defensive ammunition
-Generally greater tolerance to abuse

Arguments against the autoloader:
-Perceived lack of reliability
-Complicated manual of arms (operation)
-Upper body strength required to rack slide
-Generally lesser tolerance to neglect
-Can be sensitive to ammunition variances

Arguments for the revolver:
-Simpler manual of arms
-Easier to verify loaded or unloaded state
-Easier to shoot (lack of external controls)
-Perceived greater reliability
-Relatively immune to ammunition variables
-Generally greater tolerance to neglect
-Somewhat easier to fit to smaller hands

Arguments against the revolver:
-Harder to shoot well (heavy, long trigger)
-Lower capacity
-Difficult to reload quickly
-Somewhat lessened selection of defensive ammunition
-Generally lower tolerance to abuse

Having written two books on the revolver, and being known as a revolver “expert,” it may surprise you that I usually recommend an autoloading pistol for most people. Why? Because the advantages of the autoloader generally outweigh the advantages of the revolver, except for some specific instances.

This article is an excerpt from:

12 Essentials of Concealed CarryGrant Cunningham's 12 Essentials of Concealed Carry Download (PDF)

Speedloader Techniques for the Revolver

As you bring the hand with the speedloader toward the one that is holding the cylinder, the speedloader will naturally end up over the chambers.
As you bring the hand with the speedloader toward the one that is holding the cylinder, the speedloader will naturally end up over the chambers.

The most efficient way to recharge your revolver is to use a speedloader. The speedloader inserts all rounds into the cylinder simultaneously and greatly reduces the fiddling necessary to get bullet noses started into their chambers.

Speedloader Technique

The speedloader really comes into its own when paired with the Universal Revolver Reload. With one hand holding the cylinder and the other handling the speedloader you can take advantage of proprioception; all you need to do is to bring your hands together and the speedloader will be right on top of the cylinder where it needs to be.

When retrieving the speedloader, the most important thing is to grasp it by the body, not by the knob.
When retrieving the speedloader, the most important thing is to grasp it by the body, not by the knob.

Reloading in the dark or while keeping your eyes on your threat is more efficiently accomplished with the speedloader than with any other method.

Like anything else, there is a technique to using the speedloader. Poor speedloader technique can slow the reload significantly. Here’s what I’ve found to be the best way to use one.

When you retrieve your speedloader, it’s important to grasp it by the body, and ideally so that your fingers align with and extend just past the bullet noses. This slightly enhances the effect of proprioception and makes it easier to handle the speedloader. If you don’t get it exactly right, don’t worry; the technique won’t fail if your fingers aren’t in exactly the right place. The most important thing is to grasp the speedloader by the body, not by the knob!

As you bring the hand with the speedloader toward the one that is holding the cylinder, proprioception ensures that the speedloader will naturally end up over the chambers. Just bring your hands together.

(Some trainers advise, and I used to teach, that the tips of your fingers can make contact with the edge of the cylinder to help align the rounds with the chambers. I’ve found that’s not necessarily true, particularly if your initial grasp of the speedloader doesn’t leave your fingertips in front of the bullet noses. Instead, I now teach to simply bring your hands together – the speedloader will be in just the right position automatically.)

Sometimes you’ll get lucky and the bullet noses happen to line up with the chambers; other times they’ll line up on the metal between the chambers. The solution is simple: as the bullet noses come into contact with the cylinder, simply jiggle the speedloader by twisting it very slightly and very quickly clockwise and counter-clockwise. The bullets will drop into the chambers without further work on your part. (This is a fine motor skill, which validates my insistence on using your most dexterous hand to do the job.)

Speedloader techniques for revolvers.

After the rounds have dropped into the chambers, release them by whatever method your speedloader brand requires. If you’re using a Safariland or SL Variant, simply push the body of the speedloader toward the cylinder and the rounds will release.

If your speedloader is an HKS or similar design, insert the rounds into the cylinder, then grab the knob and twist it to release the rounds.

As the rounds drop from the speedloader, pull it straight back out to make sure all of the rounds have cleared, then drop it over the side of the gun. This eliminates another failure point of the reload procedure: rounds binding in the loader.

It’s not uncommon to have the speedloader tilt just a bit and cause a round or two to bind inside the loader. When this happens the round(s) don’t clear the loader, and if you attempt to close the cylinder you’ll trap that round(s) and the speedloader against the frame of the gun. You’ll then need to open the cylinder, grab the speedloader, shake the round(s) loose and finally finish the reload. Yes, it’s time consuming and aggravating, which is why I strive to avoid it by lifting the loader and allowing the rounds to drop free, then tossing the speedloader away.

Speedloader Recommendations

The two most common and widely available speedloaders on the market are the Safariland, which use a push-to-release mechanism, and the HKS, which releases by turning a knob. (There are other examples of each style, such as the push-type SL Variant and the turn-type Five Star, but Safariland and HKS are by far the most readily available. They’re the least expensive in their respective categories as well.)

In general I much prefer the Safariland, simply because they’re more intuitive in use. You’re already grasping the speedloader by its body and pushing the rounds into the cylinder; releasing the rounds from the Safariland is a simple continuation of that movement. The HKS style, on the other hand, requires you to release your grasp of the body, find the knob and grab it, then twist it in the proper direction to allow the rounds to drop into the cylinder. I don’t consider that as intuitive as simply continuing pushing the way you’re already pushing.

I’ve also found that the Safariland speedloaders, when properly loaded, are more secure. They’re less likely to accidentally release in a pocket or when dropped.

This article is an excerpt from the new book Defensive Revolver Fundamentals by Grant Cunningham. Click here to get your copy.

Concealed Carry: What About +P Ammo?

Is +P Ammo right for you?
Is +P Ammo right for you?

The idea behind the +P is to add enough energy to reliably deliver an expanded bullet deep enough to do its job. It doesn’t have to be a lot of extra energy – it just has to be enough. Here's what you need to know.

What About +P Ammo?

Remember that hollowpoints use part of their energy to expand their diameter, but the energy that’s used to expand the bullet is energy that can’t be used to drive the same bullet forward. There is no such thing as a free lunch; if you want the bullet to expand, it’s going to use energy. If there is too little of it to start with, there won’t be enough left to carry the bullet on its path.

In .38 Special, the best loads are all of the +P variety.
In .38 Special, the best loads are all of the +P variety.

In those cases the expanded bullet will stop forward movement too soon, which results in very shallow wounds that don’t reach vital organs. This is why you don’t find a lot of expanding bullets in standard .38 Special cartridges – there just isn’t enough energy to drive a bullet deeply into the target and expand it at the same time.

Arm Yourself With More Concealed Carry Knowledge

The answer is to start out with more energy, enough to both expand the bullet and penetrate sufficiently. This is often accomplished with “+P” ammunition, which is simply a cartridge which has been loaded beyond what is considered “normal” pressure. The +P loading boosts the energy of the cartridge to accomplish a specific task.

A common misunderstanding of +P loadings is that they’re useless since they’re not a huge increase in power. Here’s the thing: they don’t have to be.

The idea behind the +P is to add enough energy to reliably deliver an expanded bullet deep enough to do its job. It doesn’t have to be a lot of extra energy – it just has to be enough. If a normal-pressure load can’t quite deliver that bullet to where it needs to, but a little hotter +P version does, then that is sufficient for the task at hand.

It’s important to understand that you don’t need vast increases in power for defensive applications; you simply need enough power to perform both of the tasks we discussed earlier. Some will argue that it’s better to have a larger reserve amount of energy on tap than a +P, but everything comes at a price.

Ammunition for the Recoil Sensitive

Federal Nyclad is the only standard pressure .38 Special round author feels comfortable recommending for self-defense work.
Federal Nyclad is the only standard pressure .38 Special round author feels comfortable recommending for self-defense work.

Many people, particularly those with the ultra-light revolvers, find that the recoil of .38 Special +P ammunition is too much to comfortably handle. Sadly, there aren’t a lot of alternatives; the .38 Special, in standard-velocity loadings, isn’t well known as a fight-ending cartridge.

There is an exception, but unfortunately it’s a little hard to find: the Federal Nyclad 125 grain hollowpoint.

This load combines a very soft lead bullet with a nylon jacket, which allows it to travel down a barrel without leaving a lot of lead behind. The soft lead expands readily even at .38 Special velocities, but still has a decent amount of penetration.

The load has been around for many years and there is a small but reliable number of defensive shootings where it has been used to good (though not spectacular) effect.

It would not be my first choice except for those cases where +P ammunition is contra-indicated.

Raise Your Concealed Carry IQ:

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  • 5 Advantages of the Revolver

    Even in this age of the polymer wonder pistol, the revolver has some advantages that are not easily dismissed.
    Even in this age of the polymer wonder pistol, the revolver has some advantages that are not easily dismissed.

    Revolvers are Efficient

    The revolver’s first advantage is efficiency; the revolver requires no manipulation of the gun beyond operating the trigger in order to fire. There are no extra buttons or levers to push, which means that there are no buttons or levers to forget to push.

    I’ve watched even highly-trained and experienced shooters forget to deactivate the safety on their autopistols when faced with a new and distracting shooting challenge. I’ve also seen them forget to activate that safety and negligently discharge their guns. These aren’t people who are new to the guns, either. I’m talking about people with hundreds of hours of formal training, some of them police officers who are tasked with training their fellow officers. The more complicated something is, the easier it is to forget something when you’re distracted.

    Revolvers are Reliable

    Part of the revolver’s legendary reliability is the fact that it will function with any ammunition in its caliber; autoloaders, in contrast, are often very picky about bullet weight, shape and velocity.
    Part of the revolver’s legendary reliability is the fact that it will function with any ammunition in its caliber; autoloaders, in contrast, are often very picky about bullet weight, shape and velocity.

    Another major attribute of the revolver is reliability; the revolver will generally have a longer mean time between failures than that of even the best autoloaders, meaning that it will shoot more rounds without having mechanical issues that affect its operation. Of course that’s not to say that revolvers never malfunction, only that they do so less often than a self-loading handgun. What’s more, most of the malfunctions that can occur are easily prevented through proper technique or maintenance.

    Part of that reliability is the fact that the revolver will shoot a much wider variety of ammunition. With an autoloader it’s necessary to thoroughly test the gun with any specific type of ammunition because they are somewhat picky about bullet weight, shape, and velocity. Many experts hold that an autoloader should be tested with 200 rounds of any ammunition that you expect to use (which today would run into an awful lot of money).

    Revolvers Will Fit Anyone

    The revolver, more so than the vast majority of autoloaders, makes it easy to get a good fit simply by changing the grips. Because the revolvers’ grip size and shape isn’t dictated by the need to fit a magazine, there is much more leeway in how big or how small the grip can be made. In many cases it’s possible to take a revolver which doesn’t fit the shooter well, make a grip change and end up with a combination that works well.

    This is true regardless of whether the gun is too small or too big for the hands. Larger and smaller grips are available, and in extreme cases it’s possible for a gunsmith to modify the grip frame to make an even greater change.

    Revolvers Don't Use Mags

    Of course, there are no magazines necessary to operate the revolver, which is an often-unappreciated advantage. Magazines are the weak spot for the autoloading pistol – they’re fragile, they wear out, they’re expensive and you have to remember to bring the darned things!

    The Revolver Trigger is Heavy

    A very real advantage in an adrenalin-charged incident is the long and heavy trigger offered by the revolver. In the confusion of a defensive shooting, there is the very real possibility that fingers will stray into the triggerguard, and there are enough videos of trained police officers inadvertently discharging rounds when in a tense situation – sometimes resulting in death. I would never suggest relying on a heavy trigger as a safety device, but must also acknowledge that it does provide another layer of protection to even the best safety habits.

    This article is an excerpt from the new book Defensive Revolver Fundamentals by Grant Cunningham. 

    Expert Tips on Buying a Revolver for Concealed Carry

    Revolver Reload

    So you’re shopping for a new carry gun, and you’ve decided that it needs to be a revolver? Good for you. The revolver definitely has a lot to offer, even in this heyday of compact autoloading pistols, but there are still many things to consider before making your purchase. Following are the key considerations you will want to think about.

    How Will It Be Carried?

    How you plan to carry the gun has a huge impact on your range of choices. For instance, if you plan to carry it in a pocket, you’re obviously not going to want a full-size 4-inch revolver.

    Pick the gun for the most restrictive carry method you’ll be using. If you’re going to carry it in an ankle holster as a back-up during the week, but as your primary gun in a tuckable appendix holster on weekends, pick the one that works on the ankle. You can always carry a small, light revolver on your belt, but the opposite is not true for a similarly sized steel model.

    If you’re going to wear this gun in an ankle holster, you’ll find that it will get very dirty quite quickly. The Smith & Wesson Centennial series guns, like the 442 and 642, don’t have exposed hammers, nor the opening in the frame through which the hammer protrudes. As a result they’re better sealed against dirt and lint. That’s not to say that they’re impervious to filth getting inside them, just that they’re more resistant to getting fouled than their exposed hammer brethren.

    Don’t forget about corrosion resistance either. If your carry method is a pocket holster you’re likely to discover that the pocket is a surprisingly humid place — particularly in the summer months. A gun with any amount of carbon steel (like the barrel and cylinder of the Smith & Wesson 442) will rust pretty quickly, as I can personally attest. For pocket carry, an all alloy or alloy/stainless steel alternative, like the S&W 642, is a better choice. Nothing, mind you, is corrosion proof, but stainless steel is far more resistant than any kind of carbon steel.

    The new polymer revolvers, like the Ruger LCR, may prove to be among the most corrosion-resistant revolvers yet made for concealed carry.

    How Much Recoil Can You Stand?

    You can’t fight city hall and you can’t fight the laws of physics, either. Regardless of the caliber you’ve picked, a small light gun will have more perceived recoil than a larger, heavier gun. Once you’ve narrowed your choices into the size and caliber range that makes the most sense for your use, you’ll often have the choice between an ultra-lightweight model (polymer or alloy) and a heavier, all-steel model.

    Naturally the lighter models, while easier to carry in places like pockets and ankle holsters, have a higher level of recoil than their heavier counterparts. There is no free lunch; to get the nice weight, you’ll have to put up with more pain — and the pain can be severe!

    I’m no stranger to recoil, but even I find the kick of an ultra-lightweight gun, loaded with a good +P defensive load, to be more than I really want to handle. I’ve even shot one with full-house .357 Magnum rounds. You’ll notice I said “one,” and I say that because my reaction was immediate: “Never Again!”

    Remember that recoil affects not just your comfort, but also your ability to deliver additional shots to your target. One round of any caliber is unlikely to stop someone cold in his or her tracks, so you have to plan to shoot more than that. Each additional round from a light but high-recoiling gun will be slower to shoot than from the same sized gun made of heavier material, because you have farther to bring the gun back on target. The lightweight guns are certainly comfortable to carry, but they will impact your ability to deliver the rapid, multiple, combat-accurate hits that actually stop bad guys.