Gun Digest

Ammo Choice: The .45 For Self-Defense

The problem with the .45 ACP for self-defense isn’t the cartridge, but the pistols that chamber it. It’s a big cartridge and requires a big pistol. Even the most compact .45s are still kind of big, and the smallest are harder to shoot as a result.

Because, they don't make a .46:

The obvious topic for discussion here is the .45 ACP. But, let us not forget the .45 Colt, which has been seeing some resurgence. First, the .45 ACP.

When the FBI was trying to find something better after the Miami shootout, there were those counseling the .45. However, there was a lot of resistance to jumping up to it and it alone. A lot of agents simply wouldn’t be able to handle a .45 ACP, especially since the two choices were the 1911 and the S&W 645. Both big guns, they would have been too big for the smaller agents, and the recoil would have been too much for even those who weren’t small.

The FBI had just settled a case where the training program, as it existed at that time (the early 1980s), flunked female candidates, candidates who would have passed the FBI qual course had they been given the qual course and not the academy course. The FBI was sensitive about disparate impact.

You want expansion? Then you want all-copper bullets, and here is the champion: Silverback 230 .45 ACP. Look at those petals.

So, they selected the 10mm, and wrangled and fought and changed plans. They could have avoided all that, and the subsequent 25 years of wandering in the wilderness with .40s, if they had simply opted for the .45 (the 10mm had to be in a .45-sized pistol anyway), figured out how to build guns for female and small-handed agents, and taught them how to shoot.

All the R&D and bullet technology that improved the 9mm and .40 translated perfectly to the .45, and as a result, it is even better now than it was back in the 1980s.

The problem with the .45 ACP isn’t the cartridge, but the pistols it is in. It is a big cartridge and requires a big pistol. Even the most compact .45s are still kind of big, and the smallest are harder to shoot as a result.

So here, your choices are easy in ammo and hard in pistol.

The .45 has a hollow point so big you can see the results in this .45 Colt bullet. That’s a plug of cloth from the heavy cloth barrier test, in the open petals of the PDX1 bullet. It cut the cloth out, still expanded, and tracked so straight the cloth stayed in place.

Any modern bullet in .45 ACP will easily pass the FBI test. The .45 is also amenable to the adoption of the new hollowpoint all-copper bullets. There, you can get impressive, even eye-popping expansion out of bullets – with petals expanding to over three-quarters of an inch.

Where the old wound tracks of FMJ, also known as hardball, were simply .45 diameter tunnels, the new bullets expand and create impressive wound tracks.

Raise Your .45 ACP IQ:

The .45 is also a very efficient cartridge. The bullet is mostly inside the case, and the case capacity is well suited for the bullet. (That was a point considered in the first decade of the 20th century, when the .45 ACP was developed.) It doesn’t take a lot of powder to get its bullet up to speed, and as it does its work through mass and frontal area, even if they didn’t expand much, they’d still be great. That they do is a grand bonus.


Even more so than the .40, the Guard Dog in .45 is a great choice. If you are limited to FMJ, this delivers 165 grains of soft-recoiling .45 bullet, and the expanding full metal jacket is a bonus.

.45 ACP+P?

Do you need the extra boost of P? Maybe. If you can handle it, if it doesn’t cause a decrease in your shooting and you want the extra performance, then go for it. You probably don’t need it, but some want it, so there it is.

The .45 Colt can be amazingly accurate. Twenty-five yards, offhand, with full power PDX1 ammo.

.45 COLT

The .45 Colt dates back to 1873 and the Colt Single Action Army. It has an MAP of only 14,000 PSI, but that’s plenty. Given a .45 bullet of full weight, the .45 Colt smacks the FBI tests with authority, and delivers plenty of expansion. And since the pressure is so low, you can get a lifetime of shooting out of one revolver, as it simply isn’t worked that hard by the recoil or pressure. You just have to be willing to put up with a full-sized revolver, is all.

Back when Detroit PD allowed personal sidearms in calibers officers could shoot a passing score with, we saw bunches of S&Ws in .45 Colt on the street. Back before the FBI tests, a flat-nosed 255-grain lead bullet was well thought-of, and it should still be so today.


If something works in 9mm, it works better in .40, right? Then it obviously should work better still in .45 ACP, because we have it all – mass, frontal area, and we aren’t giving up velocity. I speak of the Honey Badger, which does not expand, stops in gel like bonded bullets, and ignores barriers. This just may be what all bullets are in the future.

Eighteen inches of penetration from a non-expanding bullet, and a wound track that looks like that? Where do I get some? Image courtesy Black Hills.


As with the other big-bore choices, you do not have to obsess about weight. 185s work as well as 230s, and if your handgun (or your hands) prefer the 185s over the 230, then go for it. Don’t get hung up on bullet weight, go with accurate and easy to shoot.

Editor's Notes: This article is an excerpt from Choosing Handgun Ammo: The Facts That Matter Most for Self-Defense by Patrick Sweeney.

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