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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.


This article is an excerpt from:

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9 COMMENTS

  1. While there is something to be said about putting more lead downrange than the other guy from personal experience I have to say that 1 or 2 good hits from a larger caliber trumps more from a smaller caliber. This is from people I’ve had to, much to my dismay, “stop” and the ones I have seen in my Operating Room. The ones with 5 or 6 9mm or .38 holes in them we, most of the time, save. And these are the self defense and LEO type rounds. The ones with larger caliber holes, most of the time at most 3, are donors. That speaks very loudly in my opinion. I have also seen guys in vests hit by 9mm rounds hardly even slow down, while the heavy rounds stagger them giving more time to get more shots off.

    Again this is my experience from my time in the military and working trauma in D.C.and yes these are pistol hits not long gun.

  2. This argument is as old as firearms themselves. On any given day I might be carrying a East German Makarov or CZ-82 loaded with Hornady self defense rounds, a Sig 220, S&W 627 .357 snubby, Kimber CDP, or Sig Sauer Nitron officers model. My wife’s go to pistol is a Sig Sauer P232.
    If my dress for the day will cover it I might even have a full size 1911 or a Sig Sauer P226, in either .40 or 9 mm, (I like the .40 better)
    I don’t believe it is (within reason) the caliber, though I think we can exclude .25ACP and .22’s, maybe even the .32. The best self defense gun/caliber is one that you have worked with, know it’s tendencies are confident in its use and most importantly the right self defense ammo. I like Hornady but this is one man’s opinion, and you know what they say about opinions.

    Happy shooting all

  3. While I can see the authors point I can’t entirely agree. While he states that what matters is getting rounds on target the power factor cannot be ignored. Naturally power factor does not override everything else either. If rounds on target were all that mattered we would all simply have 22lr and that would be it. But if we want to dismiss rim fire then consider the five seven. You can get rounds on target easier than 9mm and is much more potent than a rim fire but I doubt the author carries one. So let’s remember to take each factor and consider its contribution to the situation without placing undue emphasis on any.

    • Obviously you didn’t read the article. It seems like you just wanted to jump in to comment. I’d bet because your a .45 is the only way to go type of person.
      in the 1st section he writes, “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.”
      Then in the last sentence of the 1st section he writes, “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.”
      Yet again, in the very 1st paragraph of the 2nd section he writes, “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.”
      Over & over he writes about this concept only working once the “Floor of Effectiveness” has been reached.
      So I’m confused why your talking about using a 22LR or a five seven, when the author makes very clear that he’s only talking about there being no difference, once the “Floor” has been reached. Apparently, he feels that the minimum is the 9mm.
      Again, you obviously either isn’t read the whole article or don’t understand basic English. I guess I’m not sure what your point is, since it’s not a long article and the author talks about there being a minimum that once its reached, there’s very little difference in effectiveness, in no less than 3 paragraphs, in a 9 paragraph article. So, honestly, your talk about a 22LR makes no sense, and is frankly, quite odd.