The BEST Caliber For Defensive Pistols

If your hackles went up and you assumed a war footing when you read the title of this article, you’re not alone. :)

The debate between projectile sizes has been raging since Cain was deciding on whether to use a small rock or a big rock to kill Able (if, in fact, he used a stone :)

What round makes a .56 caliber hole?

Sometimes it matters, and sometimes it doesn’t, but in the instances where it matters, there aren’t any do-overs.

So, what’s the answer?

Former Force Recon Marine Chris Graham, shares a story in 30-10 from a US Navy SEAL friend of his, named “Monkey.”

Monkey was teaching a class of Federal Law Enforcement Agents who said that statistics prove out that the majority of people who are shot with a handgun (of ANY caliber) survive, but 100% of the people he had shot with a 9mm were dead.

This just illustrates the fact that the question of which caliber is best is usually the wrong question…even though the FBI is switching back to the 9mm, as well as SOCOM…Special Operations Command, which encompasses Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, (or the names they’re currently going by :) MARSOC, AFSOC, etc.

Your ability to quickly put high quality rounds on target has a much bigger impact on whether you are going to be able to stop a threat than the caliber of ammunition that you happen to be sending downrange.

And that’s exactly the conclusion that the FBI just came to. All pistol rounds suck, so go with the one that will allow you to practice the most and put the most accurate rounds on target in the shortest period of time.

There IS a place for the 9 vs. 45 stopping power debate, but for most people, it is an extremely low leverage part of the defensive shooting equation.

On the whole caliber thing, there ARE some calibers that are better than others. I would never suggest that someone carry a .25 or a .32, and there are very few people who I would suggest carry a .44 magnum unless you’re in bear country. 99 times out of 100, your ability to put fast, accurate shots on target is going to be more of a factor of whether or not you can stop a threat than whether it’s a 9, .38, .357, .40, .45, .22, .380 etc. coming out the end of your barrel.

And what IS the best caliber for defensive pistols? It’s the caliber that allows you to put fast, accurate, threat stopping shots on as many targets as are posing a violent threat to you before they are able to impose their will on you.

What about the picture?

9mm Speer Gold Dot, expanded to .56 in

That’s a Speer Gold Dot 9mm after punching through a car door like butter. So if you know one of those guys who are wrapped around the axle about a 11mm (.45) hole being better than a 9mm hole…to the point of carrying .45ACP ball ammo, this might give them something to think about. Keep in mind that a .45 hollowpoint will expand too, but the latest FBI stats show that it takes an average of 3 rounds of 9mm, .40 or .45 to stop a threat, so that extra expansion doesn’t seem to be increasing effectiveness very much.

And, in response to questions/comments, here is some comparative penetration tests of hollow point defensive ammunition:

What difference does caliber make? What difference does caliber make?

It’s only when you’ve maxed out your ability as a shooter that
caliber becomes an issue.

Time and money spent developing, fine tuning, and sharpening your technique has a LOT more leverage than switching guns, triggers, springs, grips, or ammo.

And that’s why I want to encourage you to check out Chris’ 30-10 at-home pistol training course by going to

Chris isn’t your average instructor. As a Force Recon Marine, he worked alone “in Indian country” with an Iraqi paramilitary force under constant threat of assassination and kidnapping, hours from US backup, and normally only armed with a concealed pistol. Few people in the world have the ability to speak about fighting with a pistol with as much authority as Chris.

Today, he provides advanced weapons and tactics training to personnel from USG (US Government) agencies prior to deployment to high-threat zones.

If you’re an instructor, Chris is one of the guys who you want to be picking stuff up from to use in your own classes.

If you’re a shooter, Chris is an instructor who is teaching based on first hand experience downrange against determined attackers as well as constant feedback from his students. His teaching isn’t stuff that worked 5, 10, or 15 years ago…it’s stuff that he or his students have more than likely used in the last few months, weeks, or even days.

I want to encourage you to learn more now by going to

What are your thoughts? Share them by commenting below either through Facebook (preferred) or directly on the blog:

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  1. Filmaker
    5 months ago

    In the 9mm vs. the .45 debate, most of the analysis is in the technical area (fps at muzzle, square area at impact point, etc.). As I understand it, the 9mm is a small bullet that is propelled at a high speed while a .45 is a bullet propelled at low speed, with real world results having the 9mm penetrating a human body with little immediate impact (unless hitting a vital area) while the .45 often remaining in the body with extensive shock trauma (or as one author I read put it; “knocking him off his steel toed boots”) which the person feels immediately.

    I may be wrong in all this, but if I am not, I want the round that will send an immediate message; I’ve been shot!.

    • Ox
      5 months ago

      You brought up a few good points and I appreciate them. I’m going to attempt to clarify a few things that you said that are VERY common beliefs.

      The .45 is a great round with a great history and I love shooting my .45s, but it’s not a magic bullet. The 7/100ths of an inch size advantage that the .45 has doesn’t turn a bullet from anemic to all-powerful. But if you listen to many shooters wax eloquent about the .45, you’d think it was the answer to all problems requiring a gun. It’s a GREAT round. As far as defensive handgun rounds go, it’s very effective. It’s proven. It’s just not all of those things at the expense of the 9mm.

      I find it funny that a lot of people who find the 9mm round to be ineffective think that the .357 Magnum is incredibly effective. They’re the same size bullet. If you go to your local store, you can usually find some 9mm loads with higher muzzle velocities than some .357 loads. Bullet diameter alone doesn’t make a bullet effective or ineffective.

      No defensive handgun round (regardless of caliber) will have much immediate impact unless the bullet hits a vital area, unless the attacker DECIDES to stop or run away. There’s not much difference between the 9 and .45 in this respect.

      No defensive handgun round delivers extensive shock trauma or knocks people off of their boots. The majority of shooters think the same as the author you mentioned, but it’s not correct. Even a .338 Lapua to the head at close range (which I’ve seen) doesn’t knock people off their boots…it simply “cuts the strings” and the person drops to the ground like a puppet. The shock trauma that you’re referring to is probably also known as a temporary wound cavity that occurs when a high speed bullet goes through soft tissue…this doesn’t occur with defensive handgun rounds.

      The speed and dynamics of a fight where you use a gun in self-defense make it such that you might not want to send a message as much as try to stop the threat as quickly as possible. With a pistol at self-defense pistol distances, that means getting a bullet to the spine or mid-brain on a determined attacker.

  2. Bob Thomae
    5 months ago

    100% Correct!!!

  3. SY
    5 months ago

    I agree with you, while the 9mm JHP was the same depth as the 45 the diameter of the expansion channel for the 45 was much larger and in my book that equates to more damage, greater shock value, and perhaps greater/faster bleed out. Knowing this I will stick to my .45 cal and place as many, if not more, on target shots as with my 9mm.

    • Ox
      5 months ago

      Hey SY,

      There’s 2 parts to this…

      1. Carry whatever caliber you want. Ideally, that means that you carry the caliber that you practice with the most and can carry the number of rounds that you’re comfortable carrying. If that’s .45, great! If it’s a .22, great!

      2. No defensive handgun round has an expansion channel in the sense that a rifle does. They exist, but they’re minuscule. You don’t get shock value with a defensive handgun round like you do with a rifle. Again, it exists, but it’s minuscule. Neither of these terms should drive your choice of caliber.

      3. Bleed out/hydraulic shock is something that you consider when you’re engaging an attacker at standoff distance. It’s not a consideration when you’re at typical pistol self-defense distances. Why? It simply takes too long. You need a psychological stop (which can occur regardless of what caliber you’re using, where you hit, or even IF you hit), a mechanical stop (like breaking the pelvis) or an electrical stop (like hitting the spine or mid-brain). A heart-double-lung shot can leave you with an effective attacker for 5-10 additional seconds. If they’re 10 feet away, that’s plenty of time to empty their magazine at you or close the distance and start cutting.

      4. If you can place more accurate rounds on target with your .45 than with a 9, stick with it.

      My point in replying isn’t to try to get you to stop shooting/carrying the .45…it’s to make sure that you and others make your choice with your eyes wide open with as many facts (and as FEW non-facts) as possible driving the decision.

      Please let me know if you’ve got any questions.

  4. KT carpentry
    5 months ago

    I’ve been wondering about this quite a bit lately. I noticed that you would never recommend carrying a .25 or .32 but you include a .22 in acceptable calibers. Good for me. I qualified for my CCW with a full-size Beretta 92. 16 rounds of 9mm Federal hydrashoks. But it’s very big and heavy, and being Mr. Mom I’ll admit to wearing sweats and gym shorts far more than I should. I love the platform though. So I picked up one of the surplus Beretta 71s out there. .22 pocket pistol with the same feel and controls as the larger 92. I found that I am so much more accurate with it. This little gun is a tack driver! I keep several magazines in my pockets so I always have several dozen rounds with me. I also find that the follow up shots are so much quicker that I can empty a magazine into the ten ring at 20 feet. That means an aggregate of almost 2″ of initial penetration. I know all about rimfire reliability but of the several hundred rounds I’ve put through it since getting it this spring, zero FTF or stovepipes. Perfect reliability so far. And not to beat a dead horse yet again, but it was reliable enough for the Israelis. I’m extremely comfortable with it and practice a lot. It goes with me everywhere. Isn’t that the true test of a CCW?

    • Ox
      5 months ago

      Thanks for your comment, KT! The .22 won’t win you any “most manly gun” contests at your local range, but I’d much rather people carry a .22 than nothing. There’s no question that it won’t perform as effectively as a larger/faster bullet, but if I remember right, I’ve got some 1200-1400 fps .22 from CCI that is faster than the majority of 9mm rounds out there.

      Here’s a few rules to keep in mind for a gunfight:
      1. Have a gun
      2. Have training
      3. Have enough ammo
      4. Have a squad of guys with you with carbines, grenades, and overwatch
      5. Have the ideal gun in the ideal caliber

      You can do the first 3 with a .22. Is it ideal? No. Is it WAY better than being unarmed? Absolutely.

      Here’s a question for you…do you do your dry fire practice with your 92 or do you use .22 snapcaps in your 71?

  5. raymond sisko
    5 months ago

    I have a Kimber pro carry cdp 2 , nice gun and accurate. 2 inch groups at 30 feet. But for fast follow up shots in rapid fire in a tactical situation, with good accuracy I will take my Bersa Thunder Pro ultra compact 9mm. My every day carry weapon.

    • Ox
      5 months ago

      Gotta love Kimbers :) I’ve got a TLE II. Thanks, Raymond

  6. Hermanator
    5 months ago

    Great article. I have shot a lot of different calibers and my EDC is a SIG 357. Because that is the largest caliber/muzzle velocity I can effectively control recoil with. I train to put a number of shots in a very small area quickly. Carry on.

    • Ox
      5 months ago

      I carried the .357 SIG for years during the rut (I’d run into moose & elk when trail running) and have switched to +P+ 9mm during that time of year and 9MM +P the rest of the year.

      Why? The .357 SIG bullet tends to push into the brass when it hits the feedramp on Glocks…there’s just not much of a neck on the brass to hold the bullet in place. Please make sure that you’re particular feedramp doesn’t push the bullet into the brass when you manually cycle the gun or when it cycles after firing.

      Another thing that you have to watch VERY carefully with .357 SIG is that they’re notoriously underpowered. The ONLY reason why the .357 magnum and .357SIG shine is because of the 1400+FPS muzzle velocity that they’re supposed to have.

      If you go into your local gun store and check the specs on all of the .357SIG, you’ll find that the majority of defensive and practice rounds are loaded to 1050FPS to 1250FPS, which puts them into the 9mm or 9mm +P range. Since the .357SIG is a .40 case necked down to 9mm, what it means is that the majority of .357SIG is nothing more than VERY expensive 9mm.

      Just curious…Have you tried the 10mm?

  7. KT carpentry
    5 months ago

    I practice drawing and dry firing my .22 all the time. Sitting and watching TV. Whatever. I do that with all my pieces. Out back doing yard work. I actually won’t pay for snap caps though. I just use spent brass.

    BTW, the 71 is a single action only. I carry it the recommended way now; hammer back, safety off, empty chamber. You pull the gun and rack the slide. I’m not a huge fan but I practice it. I don’t want to carry it condition 1 because there is no grip safety. Would anyone here carry condition 1 with only a thumb safety? It’s a pretty solid click.

  8. KT carpentry
    5 months ago

    Since we’re on the subject, you obviously recommend CCI mini mags? I can’t find them anymore. The Israelis used subsonic loads as air marshals and mossad hit teams. Instead of the magic one shot drop, which doesn’t exist, they just emptied their magazines, then reloaded.
    Anyway, any recommendations on .22 loads for CCW? Lead nose, jhp?

    • Ox
      5 months ago

      They’re hard to find, but I can almost always get them at local mom & pop gun stores. I just checked and ammoseek has them:

      I like the performance of lead nose, but fire exclusively jacketed rounds…here’s why:

      1. I do a lot of suppressed shooting and I don’t want the lead buildup.
      2. I simply don’t like handling lead. The neurological risk isn’t worth it for me…it is for some.
      3. Hollowpoints exist to minimize over-penetration. Over-penetration isn’t as much of an issue with .22. I want as much penetration as I can squeeze out of that round, which means having as small of a cross-section as possible. Hollowpoints expand so that a bullet that would normally pass completely through the body does maximum tissue damage in the body and using up all of it’s energy destroying things before leaving. In addition to hollowpoints not being all that necessary or beneficial with a .22, they really don’t expand reliably. I have a mix of ball ammo and hollowpoints for .22s, but I don’t really expect the hollowpoints to perform like a 9, .40, or .45 hollowpoint does.

  9. Don Smith
    5 months ago

    Good article! Although very interesting, articles regarding “knock down” capability of various weapons, calibers, and ammunition too often forget that some of their readers are average Joes like myself (non-military and minimal firearm training). Some are likely to rush out and purchase a particular weapon and ammo without considering the need for quality firearm training and quality practice. I like the sentiment that the best weapon for you is the one you can use proficiently. The Yugo and the Rolls Royce may each take you down the road (but you like one better than the other), however you need to know how to drive with either one.

  10. Tom Gough
    5 months ago

    At age 65 I am not as quick or highly finessed as I was when I was younger. I am not going to win any gun competitions like I could in younger days. I also don’t get to shoot as much as I did years ago, so most of my “practice” is a dry fire practice I do at home or in my back yard. That said I presently carry three different guns. I carry a longslide 45 1911 in an SAS type holster when out in the woods or as backup when hunting with a long gun. When in town or wearing common heavy clothing ( what passes for it in south Texas) I carry a S&W 4913 single stack because it conceals well. S&W no longer makes this gun which is sad because it is one of the best concealed carry guns ever made in 40 cal. If I am in shorts and a T-shirt I carry a little 32 auto Keltec with the 10 round mag, and a couple spares (which ever gun I carry I have spare mags) also because it conceals very well. All that said, I have found that from the holster I am just as fast with the larger guns as I am with the smaller guns, and time to put that first shot accurately on target is the same. Thats just for me my old numb hands don’t seem to care which gun is in them the work at about the same speed. I can put more rounds on target faster with the longslide 45s but I wouldnt’ want to carry one of them concealed.

  11. Jay
    5 months ago

    I think David slaying Goliath would have been a better example. Great read and right on point.

  12. Robert Lind
    5 months ago

    I have carried a hi-cap 9mm for 20 years. Granted you will not get the desired performance from ball ammo, but ammo manufacturers have got some high quality product that will get the job done. I have recently purchased a 10mm handgun, but specifically for use with a specialized sighting system and ammunition for a specific task. I have heard it’s okay to own more than one. The bottom line remains, you still have to be able to direct the pointy thing to the intended target for it to do its job no matter what caliber you choose.

  13. coyotehunter
    5 months ago

    I like big holes, but main emphasis should always be bullet placement…period.

  14. David H Davis
    5 months ago

    I learned to shoot with the Colt 45 during Korea. Since then I have tried other calibers but am not so confident with their stopping power. For Concealed Carry I have 2 Para double stacks, one with 11 + 1 and one with 12 + 1. I do feel much better with more than double what my 1911A holds. I do agree that accuracy and speed is at least as important as caliber.

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