Which Caliber Should I Choose For My First Self Defense Handgun?

I want to show you something.  Take a look at the picture below.

(Click pic for larger.)

What the heck is that?  A picture of 87 different calibers. All handgun cartridges.  Except for a few exceptions, you would need a different gun to shoot each cartridge.  And it is hardly an exhaustive list.

Anyone just starting out with armed self defense might just despair of ever getting it right.  All these different calibers!  All these different gun designs!  Which one to choose?  Guns are expensive, costing about as much as a major appliance like a washing machine.  A lot of people only have enough money for one gun, so they have to get something that will work on the first go without any hidden problems.  Which is pretty much what people think when they buy a washing machine.

Don’t panic, we can get through this.  All we have to do is narrow the list.  What we need to do is concentrate on handgun calibers that are proven to be effective in a self defense role, and that are popular.

Why only popular calibers?  Because that means there are plenty of choices in ammunition and gun options.  More choices means it is easier to find something that suits your particular needs, and competition between manufacturers keeps the price down.  Best to start with boring and effective.  You can get something exotic and exciting after gaining some experience.

To narrow our focus even more, we are going to divide the choices between the two major gun designs available for modern self defense arms.  That means revolvers and autoloaders.


This is really easy.  The only two revolver calibers I recommend to my students are .38 Special and .357 Magnum.

The .38 Special cartridge was introduced in 1898, and is still going strong today.  It was the standard police cartridge in the US for about 70 years, and it has a proven track record of being an effective round for self defense.

The .357 Magnum cartridge was introduced in 1934, and it is pretty much a lengthened .38 Special cartridge with more propellant to push the bullet to higher velocities.  This means a gun chambered for the .357 Magnum can use .38 Special ammo as well as its own, but a gun chambered for the .38 Special is limited to that particular caliber.  If the .38 Special is a bit too wimpy for your tastes, a .357 Magnum should trip your trigger.

Are there more revolver calibers available that will do the job?  Yeah, sure.  Tons of them!  But nothing else approaches the popularity of the two mentioned above, which means that there are the greatest number of choices available.  Guns large and small, with a dizzying array of finishes and accessories and after market parts.  Find what you like.



A little bit more complicated, but only a little bit.  There are three calibers I recommend for autoloaders.  They are the .380 ACP, the 9mm Parabellum, and the .45 ACP.

The .380 ACP cartridge was introduced in 1908, and it has been a popular choice for self defense ever since.  The weakest of all the calibers under discussion, it is still perfectly adequate for defense.  Choose this if you need a gun to be small and light, but still controllable and with relatively light recoil.

What can I say about the 9mm Parabellum?  Production started in 1902, it is the most popular military handgun cartridge in the world, and over 60% of police agencies in the US use it.  With all that real world testing going on we can be reasonably sure that it works.  Known for high capacity guns, choose a 9mm if you want to shoot a bunch before having to reload.

The .45 ACP cartridge was first produced in 1910, and it enjoys a probably inflated  reputation in the United States.  None the less, it is a thoroughly effective for self defense.  Some police agencies use it even today, and it was the standard US military caliber from 1911 through 1985.  Where the .45 ACP really shines is in standard sized guns where the recoil is better managed.


Like I said, we need to narrow the field to avoid a wrong choice.  At various times in my life I have carried firearms chambered for each of the calibers mentioned above, and I have never felt less than adequately armed.  Find a shooting range near where you live that offers guns for rent, and try out as many as you can before making a choice.  Approach other people at the range and explain that you are looking to buy your first gun, and I bet the vast majority would offer to let you shoot a few rounds through their guns.  Just stick to the five calibers mentioned above, and I bet you won’t disappointed.


2 thoughts on “Which Caliber Should I Choose For My First Self Defense Handgun?

  1. Okay, as a Brit my opinions are just those of armchair gunslinger, but all that’s been said sounds like good solid no-nonsense advice.

    The list of 87 calibres is interesting, there are a few there which are stricly for collectors, eccentrics or science fiction fans. The 357 Automag? The Dardick Tround?? And the 13mm Gyrojet???

    Bit of personal trivia; when I first heard about the Gyrojet it was in a Larry Niven short story, where it was described as a relic of 60s. And I assumed that the story had been written in the 50s. I was surprised when I found out the Gyrojet was real, 1960s, pistol.

  2. Not shown: .22 long, .22 CB, and .22BB.
    I found out about those last 2 when my uncle was looking for something quiet to use on the squirrels raiding his bird feeder.

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