There are a few questions that new shooters always ask. Besides the usual concerning the merits of a revolver compared to an autoloader, or which manufacturer produces the best firearm for the money, they always get around to asking which handgun caliber is best to fend off a violent criminal attack.
This is perfectly reasonable, since self defense is something that we all should plan for. But my students usually find my answer to be a bit frustrating, since I don’t think any one caliber is the absolute best.
It is important to keep in mind that the goal is to end an attack as soon as possible. If someone has to use deadly force to save innocent lives, then they want to make it physically impossible for the felon to continue trying to hurt someone.
This is accomplished either by disrupting the vital organs, breaking bones so they can no longer move their limbs, or by causing enough blood loss so they can no longer stay conscious. All of these goals are accomplished most quickly by careful bullet placement. Strike them in the right area, and your goals are met quickly. If the bullet lands in a less vital place, then the fight can go on for some time.
Still and all, you also need a caliber that is powerful enough, and with a large enough bullet, to get the job done. Below is a list of all of the choices that I recommend to my students, with the muzzle energy included. All data listed is that of Winchester Silvertips in an effort to standardize the relative merits of each round.
.380 Auto – 189 ft/lbs
.38 Special – 218 ft/lbs
9mm Parabellum – 383 ft/lbs
.45 ACP – 411 ft/lbs
.357 Magnum – 535 ft/lbs
Those who are experienced in the shooting sports will notice a few things about my list. It is very short, for example, and there are many other calibers available that are not included which will also do the job. But keep in mind that I’m writing this for those who have not had the benefit of a shooting background, and so I want to confine my advice to very common calibers. The idea is that anyone could walk into just about any gun store and immediately find a selection of guns and ammunition for any of the listed calibers. This cuts down on a great deal of frustration.
Also note that I’ve arranged the list to reflect ascending muzzle energy, not size. The .357 Magnum certainly uses a smaller bullet than the .45 ACP, but it is at the end because that particular caliber delivers greater ft/lbs.
Any one of these calibers have been proven to be effective self defense choices in the past, and I wouldn’t consider any of my students to be inadequately armed if they relied on one of them to defend themselves. But, having said that, I do have to admit that some of them are more effective than others.
Generally speaking, it is better to choose a larger caliber than smaller. This is to increase the size of the holes made in the bad guy, and to facilitate blood loss. That is why the .45 ACP enjoys a reputation as being one of the best choices for self defense.
So why don’t I just recommend the .45 and be done with it? Because some people find the big caliber uncomfortable to shoot, not to mention expensive. Since shot placement is so important in defense, that means it is important for a new shooter to practice diligently. A smaller, less intimidating round might serve their needs better, and practice ammo would be cheaper so they can afford to make more trips to the range.
Also generally speaking, it is better to have greater muzzle energy than lesser. If that was the sole criteria, then I would simply tell everyone to arm themselves with a .357 Magnum and never mention any alternative.
But the same drawbacks mentioned for the .45 ACP also exists for the .357. Practice ammo is expensive, and the noise and perceived recoil might be intimidating.
So my advice to anyone starting out is to visit a shooting range that has gun for rent. Try out some guns chambered for the calibers listed above in order to gauge your own comfort range.
After you make your choice and buy your first gun, you should practice practice practice. You can’t go wrong by some extra trigger time.