I get this question a lot. Some people really want advice and direction, others just want an affirmation that their favorite is mine as well. Here’s the deal – If you have a favorite caliber, intend to continue carrying that caliber for self-defense, and you shoot it well, then you can stop right here. If it works for you – more power to you. If you are undecided, then please continue – maybe I have something to offer,
and maybe I can help you make this decision.
Any bullet can stop an attack or cause death of the person that gets shot with that projectile – if it hits and damages the right body part. Keeping that in mind however, you can go too big, and you also can go too small. A few years ago, I re-qualified next to a guy why shot a 500 S&W Magnum in a 4” barrel with the muzzle brake. He put 25 full house loads through that pistol as I shot next to him, and each one had a blast directed through that muzzle brake that just about knocked me over. On the signal, I’d hurry up and get my rounds downrange, then step back off the line before he started shooting. Let’s just say after that experience, my opinion is that would be a little too much gun for self-defense concealed carry.
On the other hand, I’ve had people choose to carry a .22 simply because they read somewhere that more people are killed with a .22 that any other caliber. That might technically be correct, but how many of those people died two weeks later from an infection that developed after they were shot? The proper self-defense caliber lies somewhere in between: large enough to cause enough damage to quickly stop the person from attacking you, and still small enough to shoot multiple rounds accurately and quickly. In most cases, you’ll be talking about the .45acp, .40 S&W, or 9mm – there are reasons these are the most popular – they work the best for self-defense purposes.
I personally wouldn’t go any smaller (.380 as an example), primarily because the ability to stop an attacker is so much less that other calibers. However, in many situations, because of physical issues or other limitations, exceptions may be needed – I have recommended a .22 for someone who could not physically shoot anything with more recoil. Regardless of any debate over caliber choice, remember the facts indicate when shooting another person with a handgun to defend yourself, the primary consideration in effectiveness – is bullet placement. Don’t worry too much about arguments between common calibers, instead, I would recommend you make your choice based more on which firearm caliber you shoot most accurately and are still able to shoot fast while doing so.
With a firearm, to stop immediately stop someone who is motivated to harm you, there are three options: The first is to hit the brain stem – this is the control center that sends signals to the rest of the body, and if taken out, it’s like shutting off the brain with a light switch – but, this area is “small, armored & mobile.” The second is massive blood loss in a short period of time, technically called “exsanguination.” This can be caused by losing a large amount of blood through damaged arteries or major injury, or disrupting the heart so while the amount of blood may remain about the same, it isn’t being pumped through the body organs that need it. The result is hypovolemic shock, where the body shuts itself down because it can no longer function.
The third options are psychological incapacitation – where the brain tells the body to stop functioning, not because there is a physical problem that prevents additional action, but because the brain believes the body is now no longer able to function, or musculoskeletal system destruction – where an injury to the body prevents the body from working. Examples would include damaging the skeletal support of ambulation – so you can no longer walk, or physically damaging the hand or arm – so it can no longer function to use a weapon. While these can be the most effective ways to stop an attack – they are also the most unpredictable and unreliable to obtain.
As big and powerful as the handgun caliber you choose might be, it is still just a handgun round. There is a saying that says the proper use of a handgun is to fight your way back to the rifle that you shouldn’t have left behind. If you knew that you would be in a gunfight tomorrow, you would first probably choose to be somewhere else. If that isn’t possible, then you’d probably not only show up with a long gun, but you’d also bring some friends, and make sure they had long guns as well.
Some say one of the most effective self-defense firearms is the shotgun. There are multitudes of actual examples where 12 gauge shotgun rounds (the favorite 00 buck, as well as the “omnipotent” one ounce slug) were unable to end a threat with a single or even multiple rounds. The common factor – none of those rounds hit a vital area of the body. Understand that in real world situations, you will probably need to hit a threat several times before they are no longer a threat – regardless of the caliber you carry. The myth of the “one shot stop” is just that, a myth.
I was a .45 guy for many years. Then I shot a 9mm pistol at the range. I discovered that not only was I able to shoot the 9mm faster, the pattern on the target was smaller. More bullets quicker, and more accurately placed – those were benefits I wanted to have in a gunfight. I had always believed the hype – a .45 will always stop a threat. As I did more research, I discovered the truth – a .45 does in fact make a bigger hole, but unless that big hole hits something of value, you don’t get any benefit. The recoil of the .45 was greater than the 9mm, and as a result I was faster and more accurate with the 9mm. After some training and some soul searching, I decided having more rounds, better accuracy, and being able to shoot it faster, I’d make the switch to the 9mm.
And it’s not just me. A lot of die hard .45 guys who have carried big bullets for years have evaluated the pros and cons, and have made the same decision to switch to a smaller caliber. There are still others who have yet to look at their big bullet choice objectively. In training, I have seen full-blown .45 advocates go through multiple round – multiple target courses of fire with their beloved .45’s, and minutes later go through the exact same course with a 9mm. Invariably, their groups were smaller, their times between shots faster, and because of the higher capacity – they didn’t have to reload as often. I’m not picking on anyone here, I’m just saying that if you can’t shoot as fast and as accurately with a .45 as you can with a 9mm, you’d better practice some more, or consider switching calibers.
For those without a preference, I would suggest starting with the 9mm – and here’s why. It’s the most popular caliber with law enforcement and with those who carry a pistol for self-defense. The reasons are the same as the ones I used to decide. In similar pistols, the 9mm has less recoil, less recoil tends to equate to greater accuracy, greater accuracy = better shot placement. 9mm ammunition tends to be less expensive than .40 or .45 rounds, less cost means you can shoot more, shooting more means more shooting skill. Another advantage in these troubled times where bad guys tend to travel with other bad guys, is ammunition capacity – like a larger capacity gas tank in your car, you can travel further before needing to re-fill your tank. The 9mm pistols tend to hold more rounds, and when shooting multiple rounds into multiple targets, that extra ammunition can be critical to surviving a shooting.
The first rule of gunfighting – is to have a gun. A handgun, any handgun, is a compromise – something that is easier to carry and more convenient to conceal than the long gun we would want should a gunfight occur. The choice of caliber is a similar compromise. If it was possible, we would want a handgun cartridge that had the recoil of a .22, the accuracy of a rifle round, the power of the 500 magnum, and the intimidation factor of a 12 gauge shotgun.
So what is the “best” caliber? Well, since such a perfect cartridge doesn’t exist, we need to choose a round that is easy to shoot well, and still packs enough punch to effectively stop an attacker. Good luck in the selection and decision process to determine which is “best” for you.