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Personal Defense With Limits — Caliber Selection

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Article first appeared at Cheaper than Dirt.

When discussing handguns for personal defense there are arguments put forward that are at odds with the reality I have observed. After several years of university study, and 30 years as an armed professional, I have a rather confined idea of realism. I look for vetted information and demand an internal consistency from experiments and data. I feel that my conclusions are valid.

The handgun caliber and type as well as ammunition choices are debated often. The type of handgun—Glock, SIG, or 1911—is debated. Intelligent choice is important but not the only criteria for personal defense. The bottom line must always be quality and reliability. I would never trust my life to a second or third quality handgun, yet many shooters seem unable to discern quality.

In cartridge selection, I value physics over junk science and favor scientific testing over opinion. An hour of range time is more valuable than a month of discussion. I favor service grade handguns and realistic service cartridges backed by a major maker. As for personal experience, an important distinction is that I have seen things and seeing things often means I arrived after the shooting. Some victims were largely unaffected by their wounds and others were DRT. (Dead right there.)

Based on observations and experience, a realistic minimum defensive cartridge is the .38 Special with the 9mm Luger the baseline in self-loading handguns. Each provides good wound ballistics in a proper loading with a balance of penetration and expansion. With all handgun cartridges, proper shot placement means the most. The .38 and 9mm calibers are particularly dismal with round nose or full metal jacketed non-expanding ammunition. Just because these calibers are enough with proper shot placement doesn’t mean lesser cartridges will also work well with good shot placement.

TriStar T100 and Stoeger Cougar handguns with ammunition boxes

These compact 9mm handguns, the TriStar T100 and the Stoeger Cougar, are not expensive but work well. The 9mm is comfortable to fire in these handguns.

The .380 ACP tends to bounce off bone with FMJ loads, and most JHP loads do not offer enough penetration. The .32 calibers are weaker still. Yet, I am not blind to the needs of my brothers and sisters that are disadvantaged by a physical problem that prevents their mastering a proven defensive caliber. As a writer and trainer, I must interpret their needs realistically and offer an answer. Not every shooter can control the 1911 .45, .357 Magnum revolver, or CZ 75 .40 caliber pistol.

The young, the elderly, and those with various joint problems simply are not going to be able to master such a handgun. I have considerable insight into such difficulties. I use a cane occasionally and when hiking a walking staff. Fortunately, my hands and wrists are unaffected, but then I do not own or fire the .44 Magnum revolver. I most often deploy the 1911 .45, sometimes the CZ 75 .40, and occasionally the Glock 19 9mm or a .357 Magnum revolver.


Some like to recommend a choice based upon its appearance and certain properties such as a light weight. I prefer my recommendations to be based on performance. Let’s look at the difficulties relating to certain handguns. I am going to have to assume that the shooter is willing to practice with the handguns and calibers I recommend, otherwise nothing hypostasized is worthwhile. Without a willingness to learn nothing is solved.

Shooting a .357 Magnum with large blast

The .357 Magnum offers plenty of blast and recoil!

Problems with some handguns include heavy recoil, recoil tolerance of the shooter, sensitivity to recoil as it is variously called, and also the expense of certain handguns. I have encountered such problems during training and addressed each. Some handguns are intolerable even to trained shooters; others may be mastered with practice. Among the worst choices for inexperienced shooters are the sub compact .40 caliber handguns. I have never seen good results with these handguns. Yet, the beginner often shows up with such a handgun.

A terrible choice is the lightweight .357 Magnum revolver. Add barrel ports to this revolver and you have a handgun that is dangerous to the shooter if held in the retention position. Even more reasonable combinations such as the aluminum frame 1911 .45 can be difficult to master. I support the Pythagorean dictum that numbers are the essence of things. I live and choose by numbers. Big bore handguns are more effective but are of little use if you cannot direct accurate fire. A steel frame GI .45 loaded with standard pressure ammunition is a controllable handgun, a lightweight .45 with +P loads is not.

Going Light

If you are using the .45 ACP handgun, load selection can make the handgun more pleasant to fire. The Hornady American Gunnerload, as an example, uses a 185-grain JHP at nearly 1,000 fps. The light bullet results in less recoil. In 9mm, the Hornady 124-grain XTP is a credible choice without +P recoil. I am all for maintaining the service type caliber by using light loads. Hornady also offers the excellent Hornady Lite loads, a 90-grain .38 Special and a 100-grain 9mm.

SIG 1911-22 handgun with a box of CCI .22 LR ammunition

The SIG 1911-22 is one gun that instills confidence and can be downright fun to use and fire.

Designed for compact handguns and to limit recoil, these are excellent all-around loads. Another combination I find useful for many shooters is the .38 Special 148-grain target wadcutter. At about 750 fps, this load is docile in a steel frame four-inch barrel revolver, and ideal for home defense for a recoil sensitive shooter. The Federal match is quite accurate. This load cuts a .358-inch hole. I have yet to see a .32 caliber load that equals this load, JHP or not, and I would also prefer this load combination to any .380 ACP loading. By the same token, a steel frame 1911 in 9mm Luger caliber is very controllable, even with +P loads, and makes for an excellent defensive combination. The Speer Gold Dot 124-grain load is good choice for the full size 9mm.

The .22

One of my mentors once said that if he could not carry at least a .38 Special he had just as soon have a .22. Like many experienced shooters of his generation, he dismissed the .25, .32, and .380 calibers. For many reasons, there are those that cannot master the .38 or 9mm even with light loads. For those shooters, the .22 Long Rifle is viable. With 40-grain loads such as the Winchester Super X the .22 offers adequate penetration to reach vital organs. I am not certain the bullet bounces in the body; some say but the bullet will bounce off bone, which isn’t ideal. Shot placement will be everything.

Among my favorite .22 caliber handguns is the SIG 1911-22. It is reliable, accurate, easy to shoot well, and offers real speed into action. This handgun will place five rounds of CCI Velociter into a group of 1.25 inches at 15 yards. The SIG 1911 holds 10 rounds in the magazine, or 14 with the CH magazine modification. This is among my favorite handguns, and if I could no longer handle at least the 9mm this would be my sidearm. It is inexpensive to obtain and practice ammunition is inexpensive, allowing enough practice to master the piece.

Bob Campbell Shooting a 1911 handgun

The author regards the 9mm 1911—a 39 ounce handgun—as among the greatest combinations of low recoil and power.

For some, the expense of a center fire handgun is daunting. Although good self-loaders such as the Bersa line are affordable, some find this modest price a challenge. A .22 caliber handgun that always works and exhibits a high degree of accuracy is the Heritage Rough Rider. I use this handgun in indoctrinating young shooters to the handgun. The single action revolver never seems to give trouble. It is accurate enough for personal defense.

The Winchester Super X load will group 5 shots into 2 inches at 15 yards. An attractive option is the .22 Magnum cylinder. The .22 Magnum is a fine pest, varmint and small game load with considerably more power than the .22 LR. Hornady’s purpose-designed 45-grain Critical Defense load is ideal for personal defense. The caliber is minimal. However, I would have as much confidence in this caliber as the .32 Magnum, but then I hope never to have to use either.

The Heritage revolver offers real economy. The man or woman behind the gun will count for the most. Objective realism and a person’s circumstance must be considered. You are far from naked before your enemies with a .22 caliber handgun that you have mastered. If you are able to move to more powerful handguns, the .22 is an excellent trainer.

Beretta 92 on a pink target

The Beretta 92 compact is a great handgun with excellent accuracy potential and world class reliability. Recoil is little if any more than the full size Beretta 92.

Often a sharp standpoint seems presumptuous and inspires caution. I have seen this in comments on my work. I stringently prefer the big bore handgun based not on myth or an educated guess but education, research, and personal experience. I feel qualified to describe reality as it is. I do not attribute to anything qualities it does not possess. I will stress again that if you are able to master a larger caliber, do so. Some commentators, I am afraid, pursue an independent reality. A realistic description always beats ‘what if.’

The 9mm remains a realistic minimum with proper loads and in the hands of a skilled shooter may lay claim to being a universally capable tactical handgun. For those that cannot handle the 9mm for physical or financial reasons—and we all may be heading that way or have been there—it is better to have something than nothing. First, consider a handgun of the appropriate weight for the caliber. Next, consider a load of either standard pressure or one of the various ‘Lite’ or target loads. Then consider a .22 caliber handgun. Most of all practice, master the handgun, and use good tactics.

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