Choosing a Handgun for Personal Protection: Part 2 Cartridge Selection

Bushcraft and Survival Skills – by GunsmithG

There are many variables to consider when choosing a cartridge for a personal protection handgun. Skill level, recoil tolerance, and cost all come into play. Staying within a budget and allowing for monthly or bi monthly trips to the range, and ammunition for practice can become a burden if a hard to get or expensive cartridge is chosen. Certain cartridges, like the .357 Sig or 10MM for example, are harder to find and usually more expensive when it is found. High cost of ammo equals less rounds for practice, and as a new shooter, practice is extremely important. That’s one of the reasons why I recommend a quality .22LR handgun, either semi-auto or revolver to learn the basics with. Recently, because of consumer fears over gun laws and ammunition restrictions, .22LR has gotten a lot more expensive and less available, so that is something to consider also.  

A couple of police officers and gun writers, Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, compiled data from across the USA about shootings, the guns and ammunition used, and bullet placement, then wrote a book called Handgun Stopping Power, a comparative real world information source taken directly from police and sheriffs data.

On to selecting a cartridge. Lets start with common revolver cartridges first.

The S&W .38 SPECIAL – The .38 Special has been around for the better part of a century, and was once used by nearly all the police departments before the semi auto was adopted in the late 70’s on. The .38 Special was an improvement on its predecessor, the .38 S&W, which was a rather underpowered cartridge, shooting a 180 grain round nose lead bullet at around 640 f.p.s. (feet per second). Its lackluster performance came to notice during the Moro insurrection in the Philippine Islands when Moros were being shot 5 or 6 times and still able to fight. This led the military to adopt the then new Colt 1911 semi auto with its .45ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge. Smith&Wesson went back to the drawing board, lengthened the casing, added more powder and boosted pressures, and also lightened the bullet to 158 grains, resulting in higher velocity and better stopping power. With modern loadings, and good Jacketed hollow-point bullets, the .38 is a respectable man stopper, averaging a 65-70% one shot stop statistic with a solid torso hit.

The .357 MAGNUM – This is the one that has the best performance over virtually all the modern handgun cartridges out there. Introduced to the public by Smith & Wesson in 1933 as a improvement of the .38 special, this cartridge has proven to be one of the very best as a man stopper, 97% one shot stops, with a solid torso hit using Federal 125 gr. Jacketed hollow point ammo. The combination of a lighter bullet and increased velocity makes this one the top of the class in performance. Also, the added bonus of owning a gun chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge is you can safely shoot .38S&W, .38S&W Special, and .357 magnum ammunition in the same firearm. This makes for a very versatile firearm for shooters who can only afford one gun to do it all.

The .44 MAGNUM – I’m only briefly going to touch on the .44 mag because of the popularity of the “Dirty Harry” movies in which the lead character carries a Smith & Wesson Mod.29 .44 Mag with a 6 inch barrel. This is way too much gun for the novice. I can promise you if you get one, your probably going to develop a nasty flinch or give up shooting a handgun. Back in the 50’s when it was introduced, many times you could walk in a gun shop and find a “used” mod.29 with a box of ammo minus 6 shots. Hard kicking, firing a 240 gr. bullet @ around 1400 f.p.s., excellent in the hands of an expert big game hunter. Overpowered and will over penetrate most human sized targets. Pass. One redeeming note: the .44 Mag. will safely shoot the .44 S&W Special cartridge, but that’s not easy to find and expensive when you do.

Time to look at semi auto pistol cartridges.

The .32 ACP – Also called the 7.65mm, is a true surprise. Light recoil and impressive numbers when using the Winchester Silver tip ammunition, scores around 60% one shot stops. The nice thing also for those on a gun budget is there are inexpensive imported pistols coming into the US at really affordable prices, as this was a common police gun in Europe for years and was also used for officers sidearms in many European militaries. Not as common as some bigger cartridges, the practice ammunition is more expensive, but still a good useable gun and cartridge.

The 9MM PARABELLUM, or 9X19MM – First introduced in the legendary Luger pistol of WW1 and WW2 fame, this is one of the easiest to find cartridges in the world, used by most militaries as a pistol and a sub-machine gun cartridge. The 9mm Para, or Luger, as it is sometimes called, is a good cartridge for a self protection hand gun, it has a light recoil and high velocity. If loaded with high performance ammo with JHP bullets, this one will perform quite well, with lots of FMJ (full metal jacket) ammo out there as military surplus for target practice. The 9MM took awhile to gain a following, as with FMJ bullets it tended to go right through a target leaving a small hole and a very upset guy still in the fight! This has changed since the availability of good quality JHP ammo.

The .40 S&W – The .40 Smith & Wesson was an offshoot of the ill fated 10MM Norma cartridge of the early 80’s. The 10MM was developed as a near magnum cartridge for a semi auto pistol, the Bren 10. The company failed in less than a year because of manufacturing problems (many new Bren 10 pistols were shipped without magazines) and also that the 10MM had heavy recoil and blast. In later days the 10MM ammo was downloaded to be easier on the guns and the shooters, When S&W stepped in and shortened the casing, went to a small primer, and was able to squeeze the same performance out of a cartridge that could be made in a 9MM sized gun, and the .40 S&W was born. Derisively called the 10mm lite, or .40 short and weak, it wasn’t long before the .40 became popular with law enforcement and civilians who wanted more hitting power in a 9mm sized package. Firing a 180 grain JHP at around 975f.p.s., the .40 has a strong following these days. The Glock Mod. 22 in .40S&W is the same size as the Mod.17 in 9MM, and holds just 2 cartridges less.

The .45 ACP – The .45 ACP came into being by our old friend John Browning, who developed the cartridge and the first pistol to chamber it, the 1911 Colt, which was adopted by the US military, who were looking for a better handgun after the Moro uprising. Using a 230gr. bullet traveling at 950 f.p.s., this was a major development in a excellent design. Soldiers coming back from both world wars were so impressed with the .45ACP that they often bought civilian versions of the gun they carried at war. The combination of a big diameter heavy bullet and moderate velocity gave the big colt reasonable recoil with good performance as a man stopper.

Now I know that I’ve passed by a lot of cartridges out there, but I’m a firm believer in the Keep It Simple Stupid philosophy. I’m sure there are others that will perform as well as the ones I’ve listed, but remember, I wrote this for the true novice. If you decide that shooting a handgun is fun, you’ll develop skills and probably end up with many others, if you enjoy em as much as I do anyway.

In Part 3 of our subject, I’ll go into shooting stances, accessories and the subject of what gear to augment your firearm.

Till then, this is GunsmithG. I’m outta here!
A short explanation of a common measurement, grains, abbreviated as gr. is a weight measurement in ammunition making. Bullets and powder charges are measured in these. It takes approx. 7000 grains to make a pound.

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