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Probably the most hotly discussed topic in personal defense is the argument over what constitutes a proper concealed carry caliber.
We know that no caliber chambered in a regular repeating handgun is capable of always stopping a perpetrator with a single shot. Obviously some calibers are much more effective than others, but there’s always a trade-off in recoil, capacity and the size of the carry gun. It’s a common belief among many that any caliber under .40 is ineffective, and those who carry smaller calibers are constantly bombarded with anecdotes relating to the dire consequences of carrying a pipsqueak caliber.
Statements about chocolate grips and filed-off front sights abound, but there’s really little evidence to prove that bigger calibers are substantially more effective in stopping aggressors than smaller ones.
With the exception of hitting the brain stem or first few inches of the spinal column, handgun calibers incapacitate by causing blood loss. Larger, more powerful calibers are more likely to accomplish this given the same entry location and angle. Ideally, the projectile should penetrate to vital organs or major arteries even if they encounter bone structure. It’s a given that the larger the wound channel, the greater chance that wound channel will intercept those large arteries and vital organs, so a combination of penetration and an enlarged wound channel is the criteria for best performance. It’s better for the projectile to stay in the perpetrator’s body, for two reasons: One, if the projectile doesn’t exit, all the energy will be transmitted to the target. Second, since personal defense often happens in populated areas, a projectile that doesn’t exit can’t do damage to an innocent bystander.
Since the penetration to the spinal column is a major factor in incapacitating a target, and most defensive situations involve a frontal shot, it would be ideal to somehow push the projectile all the way through the perpetrator with it stopping just short of exiting. Unfortunately, such consistent performance isn’t possible because bad guys come in different sizes and wear different kinds of clothing, which can be a factor in penetration, especially if the bad guy is wearing heavy winter clothing.
It’s been generally accepted that .38 Special and 9mm are about the minimum in reliable stopping power. In recent years, the performance of .380 ACP has been improved with better bullet design and higher-performance defensive loads. Traditionally, there’s always been a school of thought that the .45 ACP is a reliable one-shot stopper. As a young man, I heard stories from World War II veterans about enemy soldiers being hit in the shoulder with a .45 slug and the impact flipping them into a distant foxhole. While early TV shows depicted those who were shot simply freezing in place and dying, later TV shows and movies popularized the concept of bad guys being thrown over cars and across rooms. Neither scenario was realistic. People who are shot react differently, but violent movements come as a reaction from the person who’s received a gunshot, not from tremendous energy being released against their body.
The energy of a handgun round is simple physics. If enough energy is released from the muzzle of the handgun to knock the aggressor down, the recoil from that shot will have a similar effect on the person who fires the gun. Even a .500 S&W only deflects my arms when I shoot it. It’s quite easy for me to maintain my balance and stay on my feet. A 230-grain .45 ACP round only moves my arms slightly, with most of the movement being absorbed by my arms.
Most accomplished shooters can easily handle a full-size .45 or .40 with little adverse effect. That number is reduced, however, when the size and weight of the gun goes from a 39-ounce, full-size gun to a 20-ounce concealed carry pistol. My experience is that even individuals who consider themselves perfectly capable of handling a gun in a caliber that begins with “4” often flinch enough to cause shots below the targeted area, even at close range. Further, continued practice with a gun larger than you can handle often exacerbates the problem of flinch. A shot that hits below the sternum is unlikely to cause massive blood loss, even if it’s a fatal shot. Massive blood loss is your best bet for making a determined aggressor cease to fight.
A while back, I had a conversation with the sheriff of a Georgia county who had recently switched his department from the Glock 22 in .40 to the Glock 17 in 9mm. His reason for the switch was that many of his officers were having trouble managing the additional recoil of the .40 S&W round. When the department made the switch, the qualification scores for the department went up substantially. He also made the point that the less expensive 9mm round allowed the department to purchase almost twice as much ammunition for practice at the same budgeting level.
Weight is another problem with large-caliber concealed carry guns. They tend to be heavy. The primary prerequisite to winning a gunfight is to have a gun. Of the guns in calibers that begin with “4,” about the lightest models available weigh around 20 ounces empty. Most .38 Special five-shot revolvers weigh in between 11 and 14 ounces, so the average weight reduction is close to 40 percent, a substantial difference when you carry every day, all day.
Bigger guns are better stoppers, but they weigh more and are harder to carry comfortably. Every choice involving concealed carry is a compromise, but modern ammunition makes calibers that were once marginal much more effective. Or course, in many confrontations between citizens and aggressors, the aggressor doesn’t have a gun, and in a large percentage of those cases, the simple presence of the gun is effective for stopping the aggressor, whether that gun is a .500 or a .22.
Even if the citizen has to shoot the aggressor, many bad guys decide to stop simply because they’ve been shot. While I’ve never been shot, I have talked to people who have, and they tell me it’s not a pleasant experience. Of course, if the aggressor is pumped up with adrenalin, or drugs, or is experiencing a psychotic episode, he may not even feel a fatal shot that takes his life within seconds, and this type of aggressor is the only adversary the concealed carry citizen will face who’s affected by caliber choice.
This determined attacker has to be physically incapacitated to end the aggression, where the attacker cannot continue due to the level of his injuries. Fortunately, the percentage of determined attackers who persist even though seriously wounded is relatively small. A higher percentage of people simply stop the aggression when they realize they’ve been shot. Their reaction might come from the level of pain or fear of death and realization that continuing might end their life. This is considered a psychological stop.
Caliber and effectiveness of the round most likely have little to do with what’s required to produce a psychological stop. The sound of the gun associated with the pain and perhaps the presence of blood loss, all are likely to contribute to a cessation of aggression in a person predisposed to a psychological stop. In that scenario a .22 rimfire will probably work almost as well as a .44 Magnum.
Unfortunately, there are no in-depth studies that can give us exact information about what the optimum caliber for concealed carry might be. Even if there was, the constraints of each concealed carry citizen’s lifestyle would likely be more of an issue than caliber selection. The closest thing to a definitive study is entitled “An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power” by Greg Ellifritz. Ellifritz compiled, over a 10-year period, statistics from 1,800 shootings with calibers beginning with .22 rimfire and .25 ACP and topping out with centerfire rifle and shotgun. The results were surprising in some ways and what you’d expect in others.
The criteria involved:
• The percentage of hits that were fatal.
• The average number of rounds before incapacitation.
• The percentage of people who weren’t incapacitated.
• The percentage of one-shot stops.
• The percentage of aggressors incapacitated by one shot.
The most surprising statistics involved the number of one-shot stops. While rifle and shotgun stops were more successful by an appreciable amount, the one-shot stop rates for handgun calibers from .25 to .44 Magnum were remarkably similar, only varying by a few percentage points. The average number of rounds required to incapacitate aggressors — two shots — was also remarkably similar. This might indicate that caliber makes little difference in the ability to stop aggressors. However, the percentage of people who weren’t incapacitated at all was much higher with the smaller calibers, but statistically almost the same for calibers from .38 Special on up to .44 Magnum.
Ellifritz concluded that, while it was true that the more powerful the round, the better the chance a determined aggressor could ultimately be stopped, the vast majority of aggressors give up when they know they’ve been shot. Click here to see the complete study.
The point of all this is that any reasonable caliber can stop an aggressor. At the same time, a determined aggressor can continue to fight, even if he’s mortally wounded by the largest handgun commercially produced, and even when hit in recommended target areas. It’s true that penetration is an important factor, as is the size of the wound channel, but these are issues that only count when the projectile is delivered to the right spot. The best advice is to carry the most powerful caliber and ammunition you — and the gun you commit to carry every day — can handle.
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I once read that the best caliber for self defense is the one you are carrying.
I carry a Boberg XR9s. It is only 17.4 oz empty but manages recoil very well, even shooting +P ammo. The Boberg line is now owned by Bond Arms. At 5.1″ long it still has a 3.35″ barrel. It has a major drawback for most to consider, the price tag. For me it was worth it.
This was a very interesting article, and it was a different approach to the whole circular argument about which caliber is best. I get really tired of people citing gelatin penetration and anecdotes about people ignoring hits by caliber X. Not surprisingly, I do have a couple of thoughts on it . . . okay maybe more like a few:
1. I can’t completely agree with the statement “handgun calibers incapacitate by causing blood loss.” Unless you are talking about the sudden deprivation of blood to the brain due to a hit that destroys the heart, dying from blood loss takes some time. The statement ignores the number of instances where the target person is incapacitated or killed almost instantly by one, two or three shots to the body. In these cases it isn’t the loss of blood so much as the shock to the internal organs created by both the wound cavity, but also by the hydro-static shock the round creates as body fluids are violently displaced by the shock wave of the round entering the body. This is why bow hunters have to be able to track the deer they shot with an arrow until it gets too weak from blood loss to continue . . . there is very little tissue damage and virtually no hydro-static shock from an arrow. Both these factors (wound cavity and hydro-static shock) are more significant with larger, more powerful calibers. When you shoot a watermelon and watch it explode, it is hydro-static shock that is causing the rind of the melon to burst. Test it yourself . . if you shove a steel rod the same diameter as a .45 round into a watermelon it is very unlikely to burst because there is insufficient energy being released. But if you shoot a watermelon with a .45, the shock wave will cause the melon to burst.
2. “If enough energy is released from the muzzle of the handgun to knock the aggressor down, the recoil from that shot will have a similar effect on the person who fires the gun.” I submit that the author is discounting the factors in the handgun itself that mitigate the energy on the shooter’s end. Weight, firearm design, the effect of the recoil or gas having to operate the action, and the shooter themselves being set to receive what amounts to a blunt force trauma all impact the effect. On the receiving end, however, there are very few mitigating factors. True, a small, high velocity bullet entering the human body is not likely to stop someone in their tracks or knock them down. Granted, very few handgun hits actually knock someone down, but the target is definitely receiving more kinetic energy than the person pulling the trigger.
3. The “psychological stop” is a dangerous concept to provide to new gun owners. It could conceivably influence someone to believe that they will end a violent confrontation with a criminal simply by showing them their gun. Anyone who carries a gun for self defense has to be utterly committed to use it the instant they draw it. A great many of the instances where someone is killed by their own gun have occured because they drew the gun and didn’t use it. As John Mason told Stanley Goodspeed in ‘The Rock, “You must never hesitate.” Filling people’s minds with the concept that just showing the bad guy you have a gun might end the attack is a formula for disaster, and telling them that a .22 is as good for this as a .44 is even worse. This is especially true in an age when active shooters and terrorists who will not stop until they are dead are genuine threats. Speaking as someone who has had more than one gun pointed at them, I can attest that many bad guys will be far more willing to risk a wound from a .22 than from a larger caliber.
However, despite these small disagreements, I compliment the author on understanding a basic premise of writing . . make the beginning good and the end memorable, and people will forget the middle.
The article starts with the completely accurate statement “We know that no caliber chambered in a regular repeating handgun is capable of always stopping a perpetrator with a single shot.”
And it ends with the equally viable sentence “The best advice is to carry the most powerful caliber and ammunition you — and the gun you commit to carry every day — can handle.” I agree completely.
Overall, a great read and I compliment Dick Jones and GunDigest for an intelligent and well written article.
When it comes to recoil, I also shy from the .380 acp. Older and many newer pistols in this caliber are simple blow back operation and are known for their sharp recoil and light weight. 9mm caliber pistols on the other hand employ some form of locked breach that helps lesson recoil. I have been surprised a few times as to the tame recoil in 9mm subcompacts compared to .380 acp in a similar size/weight
That’s a good observation and one that too many people miss when they are advising people with weaker grips or smaller hands to buy a .380 subcompact. And although you are correct about a lot of 9mms being tamer than some .380s, any sub is harder and often more painful to shoot than a larger gun. My 9mm subcompact BUG is a lot more painful to shoot than my full sized Glock 21 in .45 ACP.