Caliber Wars


It’s popular on shooting forums to have long, drawn out, discussion about the best caliber for self defense. These all focus on “stopping power”, which is usually defined as a one shot stop on someone attacking the shooter. Usually these debates focus on 9mm versus .45ACP, although if the revolvers are involved, it can focus on .38 Special versus .357 or .44 Magnum. “Mouse calibers” need not apply.

They all also seem to include situations that non police officers probably won’t have to face. I don’t know about you faithful readers, but I don’t anticipate having to shoot through engine blocks, walls, sixteen layers of clothing, or schools. In fact, as a non police officer, shooting through any of those is distinctly undesirable and might just lead to unpleasantness involving police officers, lawyers, judges, small rooms with iron bars, and so on.

Then there is the “manly man” factor. Most shooters are men and are used to shooting larger caliber guns. That demographic is changing, though and a lot of women are now starting to shoot and some of them are carrying firearms for self defense. Mrs. EMS Artifact now has a handgun permit and has shot with me. I don’t know that she’s going to carry a handgun for self defense, but it’s possible that she will. I know her well enough to know that she’s going to want a light handgun if she does. Light in weight and light in caliber. She’s fired a .38Special revolver and is not a fan. She’s also fired a .22LR semi automatic and actually thought it was fun. Which means that if she does carry, her choice will be closer to .22 than 38, 9mm, or 45 ACP.

This has started me on research into a good caliber for self defense that doesn’t have a lot of recoil.

.380 would seem like a good choice, but that’s a “barky” caliber. Or rather, can be if you choose a blow back operated pistol like a Walther PPK or one of the many clones. That will not do at all because I want her to feel comfortable shooting. Comfort encourage more shooting, which improves performance. No matter what you shoot, it’s not good if you miss because you are flinching or afraid of the recoil.

By the way, the exact same goes for my lovely daughter in law. She enjoys shooting my .22LR revolver, but hated my son’s .380 semi auto and my .38 Special revolver. That was an important lesson to me in that I now know that nothing turns off a new shooter more than a bad recoil experience.

So, it was with considerable interest that I read this article,

An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power

The entire article and accompanying chart is well worth reading if you are interested in or researching this topic, but here is the so called money quote.

This study took me a long time and a lot of effort to complete. Despite the work it took, I’m glad I did it. The results I got from the study lead me to believe that there really isn’t that much difference between most defensive handgun rounds and calibers. None is a death ray, but most work adequately…even the lowly .22s. I’ve stopped worrying about trying to find the “ultimate” bullet. There isn’t one. And I’ve stopped feeling the need to strap on my .45 every time I leave the house out of fear that my 9mm doesn’t have enough “stopping power.” Folks, carry what you want. Caliber really isn’t all that important.

Look at the data for calibers from .380 to .45ACP. There really isn’t a great amount of difference. Notice that even the very effective .357 Magnum isn’t that much more effective than the .380.

One last quote,

In a certain (fairly high) percentage of shootings, people stop their aggressive actions after being hit with one round regardless of caliber or shot placement. These people are likely NOT physically incapacitated by the bullet. They just don’t want to be shot anymore and give up! Call it a psychological stop if you will. Any bullet or caliber combination will likely yield similar results in those cases. And fortunately for us, there are a lot of these “psychological stops” occurring.

I can tell you that this coincides with my experience as a paramedic. I saw my fair share of shooting patients over the years in calibers from .22LR up to 7.62×39. With one exception, and he was probably high, the ones that could talk all told me that it hurt like hell to be shot. They guy shot with the rifle caliber was dead, so he didn’t tell me anything other than what the author of the article wrote. A rifle is far more deadly than any handgun.

The moral of the story is to carry what you feel comfortable and confident shooting. Chances are that if the horrible happens and you have to shoot to save your life, whatever you have is going to be effective.

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After a long career as a field EMS provider, I'm now doing all that back office stuff I used to laugh at. Life is full of ironies, isn't it? I still live in the Northeast corner of the United States, although I hope to change that to another part of the country more in tune with my values and beliefs. I still write about EMS, but I'm adding more and more non EMS subject matter. Thanks for visiting.


  1. we were just discussing this at home, regarding a new shooter who might want to carry, also. this is a good reminder, the one you carry is more effective than the one you won’t carry, due to weight or caliber/recoil/flinch.
    mrs doubletrouble

  2. Any gun is better than no gun and a small caliber you will carry is better than a large one you won’t but relying on a ‘psychological’ stop is foolhardy and a recipe for grief…..for your survivors. If you don’t like decent caliber guns SHOOT ENOUGH to where they stop being intimidating. NO handgun has so much recoil that it cannot be handled by someone of normal strength once they have had adequate practice. The key is PRACTICE.


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