Of all the factors that one considers when preparing to defend yourself and loved ones with a firearm, ammunition selection is one that is most immersed in conventional “wisdom”, folklore, and outright falsehoods, and as such is one where most newer gunhands, and more than a few seasoned gunslingers, fall victim to bad info.
All the common handgun cartridges- 9mm Para., .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W and the much beloved .45 ACP, all have their vocal fans, and seething critics.
We’ll touch on the most common myths, but with all the noise surrounding the topic, it is often best to forget what you think you know, and begin with a fresh take. Below, I’ll take you through an overview of how bullets do their work, and what makes good ammunition, well, good. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
How Do We Stop Our Attacker?
The ammunition industry has seen great leaps forward in the last 30 years. Modern projectiles are more effective and reliable than they have ever been. Thanks to modern wound ballistic analysis we now know there are only two methods by which bullets will result in incapacitation of an attacker.
One is psychological the other is physiological, i.e. your bad guy will either give up after he is wounded, or you will wound him enough that he is physically incapacitated, typically from blood loss or central nervous system damage.
This cannot be overstated! Psychological factors are the reason why some people, when shot, will give up instantly upon sustaining a minor wound, even one that is not immediately life-threatening, where others can sustain dreadful, fatal wounds and continue to fight for short periods of time.
It is for this reason that psychological incapacitation is a factor you just cannot count on: it is an unpredictable and highly variable human element, and completely independent of the size or type of projectile you hit with, no matter what it is (I’m looking at you, .45ACP guys!).
On the other hand, physiological incapacitation has more “rules of thumb”, you might say. The speed and intensity of a physiological stop is determined by what vital tissues and organs are struck or disrupted by the bullet’s passage.
An instant stop may be achieved in this case also, typically resulting when one of a two vital nervous system targets are struck. These are 1.) the brain and 2.) the upper portion of the spinal cord.
It must still be said, a hit from a common handgun to one of these targets is still no surefire promise of dropping your attacker instantly. You must always plan for multiple, well aimed shots being necessary to have effect, even from large caliber weapons.
Besides the central nervous system, the most promising targets to affect a physical stop are major organs and blood vessels in the torso, i.e. center mass.
Bullets that damage either will start to let blood out, and air in. The resulting loss of blood volume and pressure will eventually, assuredly, cause physical incapacitation, though the amount of oxygenated blood still in the body can allow a mortally wounded individual to continue functioning for a time.
Once again, multiple, well-placed shots are the rule, not the exception, in stopping the assailant in a life or death encounter.
Bullet Wounding Mechanisms
When struck by a bullet, tissue in the body is damaged through two mechanisms: tissue in the path of the moving projectile is destroyed, or crushed, by its passage, while tissue surrounding the path of the projectile is temporarily stretched.
The destroyed tissue left behind the immediate track of the bullet is referred to as the permanent cavity, or wound channel. In simple terms, the hole left behind by the bullet. Bullets of larger diameter leave a larger permanent cavity.
This is where you will see proponents of large caliber pistols preach the benefits of a .40 or .45, but in reality, with modern projectiles, the difference in performance between them and the smaller 9mm, .38 or .357 is so slight as to be an afterthought. Hold onto those comments! We’ll address the final tally in a bit! Moving right along…
Back to our wounding mechanisms, stretched tissue is pushed aside laterally, outward from the bullet’s passage, resulting in a empty space called the temporary cavity.
This tissue may be damaged, as the factors that determine the degree of injury are from temporary cavitation are extremely variable and furthermore influenced by the anatomy and other physical factors of the target.
Think for a moment about the composition of your own body; some tissues are soft and stretchy, such as skin and muscle, and are less likely to be seriously wounded by temporary cavitation. Others, like many of your organs, are far more likely to rupture or tear under the same stresses.
Summarizing the above, bullets that pierce the body will only cause tissue damage via one of the two mechanisms: crushing, destroying tissue in the bullet’s path, or the transient stretching of tissue immediately adjacent to the bullet’s path.
How much harm from either is owed to a specific make or caliber of bullet is dependent on the bullet’s attributes, which we will explore below
Enough With the Anatomy Lesson! What Cartridge Is Best?
Hold your horses, prepper! We’re getting to everybody’s favorite part: me telling you what works best, and why, and you telling me why I’m wrong in the comments.
For starters, the physical qualities of the bullet play a part, as does the class of cartridge. So, are we talking about a handgun, or a rifle? For either one, the size (caliber), weight, shape, material, velocity and depth of penetration all play a part.
Bullet type or design influences bullet behavior in the body. Many projectiles will yaw or “tumble” through tissue, increasing the size of the permanent cavity, causing a somewhat more serious wound channel.
Hollow point bullets (or controlled expansion bullets) do the same thing by increase their frontal cross-section by peeling open, or “mushrooming” when they enter the body. This also reduces the chances that a bullet will exit the body and present a danger to people or property behind the target.
Heavier, wider bullets will crush more tissue, and perform better through barriers, but one loses positive weapon attributes in the exchange: larger cartridges have more recoil, lower capacity and cost more (which means less training). None of the common pistol cartridges show any significant damage resulting from temporary cavitation.
Of those factors above, depth of penetration is key. Any bullet that is called on to stop a human reliably must be capable of reliable penetration to a depth of at least 10-12 inches in order to strike vital targets in the body from any angle, and do so through an obstacle like heavy clothing, or an upraised arm. It is worth noting that a very large person, either heavily muscled or just plain fat, will pose more challenge for the bullet.
Handgun bullets, be they fired from a pistol, sub machinegun or pistol-caliber carbine, will only consistently cause harm from the crush mechanism.
None of the common pistol cartridges show any significant damage resulting from temporary cavitation, handgun bullets lacking the necessary velocity to cause significant stretch effect.
Rifles bullets are different. Modern intermediate caliber rifle projectiles will typically exhibit, with certain bullet types, a fragmentation effect inside the body.
This results in multiple fragments of the bullet spreading out radially along the main wound channel, each one cutting its own smaller channel through tissue.
This has a synergistic effect with the temporary cavity: tissue so perforated will lose that elastic quality I mentioned earlier, and will be unable to stretch. This can easily result in a very large area of destroyed tissue, or even detachment.
Note that handgun bullets do not generally exhibit this beneficial fragmentation effect, and those that do will not produce the same effectiveness that a rifle cartridge will.
The fragments resulting from a handgun bullet are too small, and lack the velocity needed to travel far in tissue and this fragmentation effect typically only results in decreased bullet mass and penetration, yielding a smaller permanent cavity.
For this reason, one should completely ignore the use of any specialty handgun round promising an “explosive” effect from either pre-fragmentation or from a filling in the bullet of small shot or BB’s.
These bullets are hideously overpriced, and all feature very shallow penetration. Ignore them! Don’t get taken by slick marketing. Examples of brands like these are Glaser, Extreme Shock and MagSafe, among others.
The Bottom Line on Handguns
Handguns are just not that effective, at least, not compared to a rifle or shotgun, but they can do the job.
In countless analyzed shootings, and ceaseless FBI testing, virtually all of the major service calibers, 9mm Para., .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .357 Sig, .40S&W 10mm Auto, and the venerable .45ACP show adequate penetration and effectiveness with a quality projectile, and none of them is so superior in terminal performance that it is the “only real man-stopper” contrary to what legions of gun-counter sales guys and internet commenter’s will tell you.
.41 Magnum, .44 Special and milder .45 Colt loads are entirely adequate performers for self-defense with modern bullets, but are legacy cartridges uncommonly encountered today.
I have purposely omitted the .44 Magnum, and other large, heavy big-bore magnums owing to their typically great size, extreme recoil, overpenetration hazard, blast and low capacity seriously limiting their suitability for self defense.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway before someone gets the wrong idea: even these mighty stompers are a far, far cry from a rifle, and no guarantee of the fabled One Shot Stop.
Do not choose one for self defense against humans unless you have no other choice. They may, though, be the best choice for a handgun if defense against large animals is a concern.
Selection should therefore be made based on other criteria: which pistol is most reliable being foremost, which do I shoot most accurately, which suits my likely engagements, which can I practice most with, which has the highest capacity, etc.
Just Tell Me What I Should Pick!
It is the current opinion of the FBI and the most experienced professional trainers (including the author) that the 9mm Para. is the current ideal cartridge for self defense, owing to its combination of capacity, light recoil and more than adequate terminal effectiveness when coupled with modern ammunition.
Its low cost of ammo makes for more plentiful practice, while its light recoil lends itself to both quicker follow-up shots and less fatigue. If you are in the market for a new gun, make it a 9mm. You will have the most advantages across the most situations.
When selecting ammunition, look for major makers like Federal, Remington, Winchester, Speer or Hornady. They make several varieties of hollow point bullets, and they are not equals. I have listed their premier, best performing loads with great track records below:
- Federal – Tactical or HST lines
- Remington – Golden Saber
- Winchester – Ranger-T
- Speer – Gold Dot or Gold Dot 2
- Hornady- Critical Duty (not Critical Defense)
You will run across in your travels people encouraging you to seek out particular, older brands of hollow point bullets, such as the Winchester Silver Tip or Federal Hydra-Shok.
Of nearly mythical lethality is the infamous Winchester Black Talon, who some old-timers hoard even to this very day as a legendary and un-survivable bullet. Banned because they were just too good, ya know?
Ignore these people. I would not turn down any of them if I had no other options, but the facts are this: Those bullets were state-of-the-art 20-30 years ago, and none exhibit the effectiveness and consistency of the more modern ones above.
Save the Black Talons, many of the older legacy bullets are still made and marketed, because people keep buying them. This is not an indicator of effectiveness. Make no mistake; they are only sold because people keep buying them. Buy the best, buy modern!
I will now address in a simple list the most common lies, falsehoods, half-truths and outright idiocy that you will typically see brought up by the uninitiated. Hold on tight, you yourself may even believe some of these! Response in italics.
- “The .45/.44Mag/ .500 Deer Bazooka will drop ‘em in one hit! You’d need to shoot them 3 times or more with that puny 9mm to get the same effect!” Handguns are not that powerful. We cannot count on the bad guy giving up. Multiple shots will statistically be required in nearly every encounter.
- “A .22LR is the best for self defense cause it will bounce all over inside their body and just shred them to bits! That’s why assassins use them!” Legends of assassins using .22’s for their work have a basis in reality, but this is owing to their small, easily concealed and comparatively quiet nature compared to other guns. Reality shows us pistol bullets lose momentum very quickly inside the body, and certainly do not retain much energy after glancing off bones. The humble .22LR, while still very dangerous, is in no way an ideal performer for self defense.
- “The .357/ .40/ .45 is best because it causes the most hydrostatic shock / has more foot-pounds of energy / has more kinetic energy!” Hydrostatic shock, while not entirely bunk science, is not a wounding factor with handguns, and is still poorly understood. Measureable statistics about bullet energy or velocity is useful for comparing the attributes of one cartridge to another cartridge, but none by itself is a proof of effectiveness. Bullets wound by penetrating and destroying tissue and organs, per the explanation above.
- “My uncle/dad/brother/cousin shot a guy with a 9mm and the guy didn’t flinch! My other friend shot a guy with a .45 and he crumpled where he stood!” Poor comparison. The variables between any given shooting are enormous, and must be examined in totality. Differences in individual state and body composition alone and shot placement alone are enough to drastically skew results. The modern consensus has been formed over a very long time, many investigations of actual shootings and relentless testing.
Handgun bullets wound by crushing or displacing tissue and vital organs. Period. Reader, all of the standard service calibers will do the job if you do your part- PRACTICE!- and select modern, high quality ammunition.
It is true though that substandard cartridges or plain lead or full metal jacket bullets will reduce effectiveness, and if you are serious about pistolcraft you should be stoking yours with the highest quality loads you can afford.
Assuming you have a quality handgun in one of the calibers listed above, you will be far more effective by spending your money on training and practice than chasing the latest heat-seeker bullet or en vogue pistol modification. I hope you found this article helpful.
What do you think, reader? Learn something new? Am I completely wrong? What is your current go-to cartridge and pistol? Let me know in the comments!
If you wish to learn more about this topic from a reputable source, seek out the works of Dr. Gary K. Roberts, Dr. Martin Fackler and Special Agent Urey Patrick of the FBI’s Firearms Training Unit. The FBI’s tests and findings are one of the most in-depth sources available, and should be consulted by all serious gun carriers: