When the gun store ammo shelves go bare, these five unconventional calibers for concealed carry still keep you shooting.
What Are The Legit Unconventional Calibers:
It seems that ammo shortages are now the new thing. Every few years, kind of like the plagues of Egypt, we find ourselves scrambling to find ammo. (Those of you who hadn’t stocked up in one of the in-between periods, that is.)
One way to deal with this is to have backups (or main guns) chambered in calibers that aren’t so popular. I know, I know—you don’t want to be subject to the scorn of your fellow gun club members when they catch you packing something chambered in a “mouse gun” caliber, but when it’s that or harsh words, which is better?
The choice of an alternative ammo source depends on a few things. One, it has to be popular enough that gun shops and other retailers will actually stock it. An example from another shooting segment: The 7mm Remington Magnum and the .280 Ackley Improved deliver pretty much the same performance. Which do you think your local gun shop is going to have on the shelves? What, you’ve never heard of the .280 AI? I rest my case.
At the same time, it has to be a cartridge that doesn’t pop to the top of the list of “I need more … ” when people think of splurging on emergency ammo. So, that leaves out all the usual suspects: the 9mm, .38 Special. ,357 Magnum, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. It also eliminates the common backups, like 10mm, .44 Magnum and .380 Auto.
Now, in a full-blown we-need-ammo-now panic, there won’t be anything left in any caliber. But you can stretch things with some unconventional calibers, and not all of them are bad.
The Mak is a derivative, both cartridge and pistol, of the German PPK in .380 Auto, one that was used extensively on the Eastern Front. Replacing the legions of Nagant revolvers and Tokarev pistols, there have since been shiploads of them imported after various communist countries fell or were sold by the Chinese back when we were more-or-less friendly with them. In regard to power, it’s the exact equivalent of a .380 Auto, and the Makarov pistols are traditional double-action pistols with blowback actions.
If you want inexpensive FMJ practice ammo, you can select from a slew of imported ammo, and CCI makes their aluminum-cased FMJ ammo in 9mm Makarov. Their test barrel lists velocity as 1,000 fps, but repeated range trips to chrono it has seen it deliver just over 900 fps out of various Maks.
You’re only ever going to see pistols in .38 Super that are 1911s or clones. However, if you do pack a 1911, then this is a viable option. You could even have a two-barrel gun with magazines for each: 9mm Parabellum and .38 Super. Stash away a goodly supply of Super, which isn’t hard to do in good times, and then do all your practice with cheap (relatively speaking) 9mm ammo. Carry it as a 9mm when the ammo is available. And when ammo gets tight, you have your stash of Super to fall back on.
Some Super is hotter than 9mm, but much of it is in the same league. When a factory listing for 9mm shows a 115-grainer at 1,175 fps and the same company makes .38 Super with 115s at 1,180 fps, what’s the difference?
That said, if you want the difference, then you can always invest in ammo that’s hot, like CorBon, which carries a 115-grain JHP at 1,400 fps, or a 125-grain JHP at 1,350 fps. That’s the book spec from the old days of a .357 Magnum loading, which it rarely actually delivered.
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Once the wunderkind that was going to be the new 9mm Magnum, the .357 Sig has fallen a bit out of favor—in part, because of the ferocious blast and recoil in compact guns. However, if you use a full-sized sidearm, the recoil and muzzle blast aren’t much more than a 9mm, on par with a 9mm +P and the velocity boost is significant.
Speer Gold Dot offers a 125-grain JHP at a listed 1,350 fps, and I can tell you that out of a 5-inch Government model it gets all of that. I’m not exactly a Glock fan, but a G31 gives up a half-inch of barrel to the 1911, while gaining a 15-round magazine.
You could, like the 9mm/.38 Super example, have a pistol with two barrels, one in .40 S&W for the easy ammo times, and a spare .357 Sig barrel to use when ammo supplies are tight. Unlike the 9mm/Super pairing, you won’t even need to have different magazines for each caliber.
OK, we’ve gone from the barking .357 Sig to the real thumper, the .41 Magnum. You can have this only in single-action or double-action revolvers; no pistols here, but if you can handle the recoil then you can get the performance.
After the shelves have been stripped bare of .44 Magnum ammo, there will still be some .41 Mag. there—just because the gunmakers sell .44 Mags. to .41 Mags. at a better than 10-to-1 ratio, but the ammo makers do better. Checking various retailers and online sites, I find that despite all the .44 being gone, there’s still .41 to be had.
Now this is a—if you’ll pardon the pun—a Special case. If your choice is a .44 Magnum revolver for defense or EDC, say an S&W M29 classic or something like that, you can always find .44 Special to feed it. And, unlike the downloaded .45 Colt ammo for cowboy-action shooting, .44 Special is readily found in loadings that are realistic defensive loadings.
A 180-grain JHP, leaving the muzzle at 900 fps, is equivalent to a .40 S&W. Or, if you want something a bit more traditional, the Federal “Training” (they call it that, but this isn’t just target ammo) load is good stuff. That one is a 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollow-point at a listed 870 fps, and you can expect a solid 825 fps out of a 4-inch barrel.
That’s like the old FBI .38 Special load, but with a larger-diameter bullet and 25 percent more bullet weight.
Unconventional Caliber On The Cusp
Then, there’s the .45 Colt. Yes, there are excellent EDC carry options in that cartridge. But the ammo choices? A headache. You have excellent choices, such as the Sig JHP, but you have to be careful once you start perusing the options other than JHP or JSP.
An all-lead “cowboy” load might or might not be the ticket. A lead hollow-point of 250 grains at a real-world 890 fps is an excellent thumper. But the “cowboy” load next to it on the webpage you’re perusing might be a 255 conical lead bullet with a tiny flat point and exit your immediate vicinity at the casual pace of 690 fps.
I’ll readily grant you that it’s a lot better than the 100-grain Makarov load we started with at its 900 fps, but it isn’t what you were expecting, nor what you want to be delivering, considering it comes out of a revolver that weighs close to 3 pounds.
So, if you’re going to go the cowboy route, you have best do your homework before the panic times come.
Unconventional No Longer
Some might come to mind as alternatives. The 10mm, for example … well, fuggedaboudit. The 10mm fans are so voracious that they’ll snap up all the 10mm ammo to be had even when there isn’t an ammo-buying panic.
The .45 GAP? Besides only ever being chambered in Glocks and never loaded by many ammo makers, it’s seldom seen in gun shops—either as pistols or ammo. If you do find ammo, it’s usually dust-covered and has been there since someone mistakenly ordered it years ago. And you can’t ever count on finding much. If you do ever have to use it, anyone who knows guns, who sees the caliber listed, will look at you with something between pity and disbelief.
So, there you have it: unconventional options for unconventional times. And, given the current world we live in … these are definitely unconventional times.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2020 Everyday Carry issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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I carried and still own a Charter Arms Bulldog Pug five-shot 44 Special. It is made of stainless steel; it is not fancy and I’m not perfectly accurate with it beyond twenty-five yards but that’s OK. It wasn’t purchased as a target pistol.
I never felt under gunned carrying the Bulldog. In fact, I would much prefer a good 44 Special to any 9mm if it came to the rat-killing.
It is now one of my nightstand alternatives and goes with Hornady’s Critical Defense.
All I know is, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end!
It is enlightening to learn so much from one very interesting article, in spite of being a shootist for 53 years. I am concerned about our rights to possess, firearms and to use them in the correct circumstances, also the responsibility of all licensed owners. I hope and pray for unity amongst us for the survival of RSA.
I am feeling very unconventional now
Great article and really GREAT advice…..trouble is that has happened about 6 months to a year ago! All of the advised carry and self defense BS can be redacted also, it won;t really matter much about performance, at this point in the game! A large caliber 5 shot wheel gun will be field artillery, in the staged 9mm shoot outs previously subscribed to! What you have and how you can use it will be like the one eyed man in the land of the blind! People living off the grid and survivalists will survive, so will those with a plan to get to the off grid groups during the great bug out. When the society collapses, money will have no use, fuel vehicles and firearms and ammunition will be the top bargaining chips!
What about 327 in a Ruger LCR? It also shoots H&R magnum and 32 long.
Good concepts. Makes some of my “less-wise” handgun purchases seem a bit more valuable, now. Another route for some is to do some caliber-limited reloading; it’s not necessary to have equipment to reload everything in the catalog in order to have ammo for .38’s, .357’s (one set of dies will do both), etc. Of course, there are occasional shortages to be faced in that arena, as well.
I know of what you speak……My 204 Ruger, 35 Remington, 45 Colt Rugers and ammo all sound remarkably useful right now!