As some of you may have noticed, I am not any sort of expert on guns. In the late 1970s, I shot a rifle, probably a .22, for about an hour at a strictly-monitored scout range. My brothers were scouts and webelos, and my Dad was a scoutmaster, so they brought me along as a guest. Some kid shot out of turn, and probably lost his merit badge, but I put most of my rounds into the paper circles, and was rated a marksman. That was it. That was my only shooting experience. The slogan of the time was, “Get the guns off the streets,” and people I hung out with spent money on other things than guns.


Around 2005, my interest in New Urbanism led me to various Peak Oil websites, which if you haven’t been, are home away from home to many doomer & survivalist personalities. To those folk, you have no future unless you carry guns – the bigger and badder, the better. I recall one of them writing, “After TSHTF, I will not hesitate to shoot you and your pregnant wife if you show up at my door looking for food.”

After the debacles of first, Hurricane Katrina and then, the $147/bbl oil spike, and now, the Great Recession, it certainly seemed that the energy depletion crowd was on to something, and I began to mull the idea that owning a weapon might be a necessary precaution. Along with concerns about energy and conservation, I have been slowly educating myself on the subject of firearms, and trying to decide what (if anything) makes sense for me in the arms race that is gun ownership in the USA.

TTAG’s Brad Kozak has been helpful on the subject, but some of his other articles worry me. Costs are rising and there may even be shortages, so I don’t want to settle on some gun requiring finicky, expensive, or hard to find cartridges. A lot of review sites assume a certain familiarity with ammunition, but it is a bit of a minefield for me, so I’m looking for feedback.

If all I wanted was cheap target practice, .22 LR rimfire ammo would seem to be the obvious choice. I gather that I can buy inexpensive boxes that will fit a variety of rifles and pistols. I might do that first, but I’m also looking down the road.

There are plenty of .25 ACP caliber pistols out there, but I still remember some detective novel in which the hardboiled private dick called it, “a Ladies Gun.” Bond’s Beretta 418 notwithstanding, my impression is that a lot of .25 ACP caliber semi-autos come to market as cheap, easily-concealed, almost throwaway guns. But I could be wrong.

Well-made .32 ACP Walthers, KelTecs, SIGs and Berettas seem to be popular as concealed-carry handguns. I work in the wrong city to even try for a concealed carry license but I also read a lot of caveats about inadvertent firing, and jamming in some of these slim handguns.

In today’s weapon literature, .38 and 9mm seem to be the consensus low-end caliber for a serious defensive weapon. Ladies Guns are now the formidable LadySmiths by Smith & Wesson, in .38 Special, .357 Magnum and 9mm. While some suggest that a criminal will probably run away after the first shot, more promote the idea that you have to be able to incapacitate a determined assailant with the first shot. Take that, Dick Dastardly.

Stopping power is a grim subject, but interesting for involving ogive meplats. Ogive is a term I know from pointed-arch windows in Gothic architecture, but also refers to pointed-nose bullets – which move through the body instead of expanding, thus having poor stopping power. Assuming that you aren’t the one sticking a gun in someone’s back or face, you are supposed to want stopping power from a decent range. However, larger calibers like .45 ACP & .44 Magnum seem so powerful as to threaten people far beyond, or even through, your target.

Having taken a few math courses, I assumed that .380 was just a more precise expression of .38. But since I’ve been looking into weapons of different calibers, I have found that numbers only get you to the neighborhood where a given cartridge resides. After that you have to know someone:

.38 ACP (.38 Auto)
.380 ACP (9x17mm Browning Short)
.38 Special
.38 Super Auto (higher pressure .38 ACP)
.38-40 Winchester (.38 WCF)

A local gun shop site (local to our second home), East Coast Gun Sales, only carries .38 Special and .380 Auto, which I gather is the same as .380 ACP, but is not the same as .38 ACP or .38 Auto. William Montgomery mentioned that .38 Special was more robust than .380 ACP. So I could see getting a .38 Special revolver, feeling comfortable I could get ammo for quite a while.

There are a lot of 9mm lengths, but I have noticed that a lot of name brand semi-automatic pistols are available as 9x19mm Parabellum. East Coast only sells 9mm Luger and 9mm +P. The high pressure +P cartridges are two or three times as expensive, and I wonder if their production relies on a robust economy and if the high pressure leads to more maintenance. Ordinary 9mm Luger seems like a pretty safe bet, though.

Of course, for defense, you can’t ignore shotguns, but I’ll wait for the book.

12 Responses to Editorial: Ammo Sapiens

  1. Donal – perhaps I can address some of your issues here. (I am curious, though…which of my articles worry you?)

    I've found the concept of "stopping power" to be one of the most hotly-disputed topics in the gun world, second only to gun rights vs. gun control. There's more opinion, myth, legend, and contradictory data on stopping power than just about anything I can think of that's gun-related. And as with any topic, Your Results May Vary.

    I've had cops tell me that if they HAD to be shot, they'd rather get hit with a 9mm or .45 than a .22LR. Why? They said that a 9mm or .45 is pretty much rounds that enter the body and either stop or exit. A .22 has a nasty habit of ricocheting around, doing massive organ damage. You don't get a lot of blood loss at first, but you'll die a day or so later from internal bleeding/organ failure. If you're trying to stop an assault, a .22 might kill the attacker, but not until well after they've attacked you.

    A 9mm is the de facto standard for NATO and most police/military forces around the world. That's not without controversy, however. I've spoken personally to a large number of Marines and soldiers back from Iraq and other world hotspots, and they are not big fans of the 9mm. They prefer the larger .45 ACP cartridge and cite it's (real or perceived) improved "stopping power" over the 9mm.

    I can tell you that I've shot both 9mm and .45, back-to-back at my local ranges. The .45 has noticeably more kick (recoil) than either a 9mm or a 9mm +P (high pressure) load, fired from identical guns (in this case Springfield XDs). I've found that the .40 S&W round offers a compromise – less recoil than the .45, but more "bang for the buck" than the 9mm. I'm not alone in that estimation…I've read a number of stories lately detailing how police forces across the country are ditching their 9mm weapons for .40 S&W or .45 ACP handguns.

    As you've mentioned that .22 and .32 are perceived as "girly" calibers, I guess it's only fair to characterize the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 as "manly" rounds. (To carry that analogy further, you might call the .45 the "He-Man" cartridge, the .40 S&W a "Man's Man" cartridge, and the 9mm as a "Metrosexual" cartridge. Or not.) The .380 seems to be picking up steam (more brands, more models and more ammo choices) for a smaller, easier-to-conceal weapon. I've not shot one (yet) so I'm not able to comment on their recoil or effectiveness as a calibre.

    In revolvers, I can tell you that the .38 Special feels a lot like the kick of a 9mm. This isn't too far off the mark, as a 9mm round is actually about .35433071 inches in diameter. (But who's counting.) The .38 Special cartridge is longer (by a long shot) than the 9mm, but there's not but about 2.5/1000ths of an inch difference in the bullet size. I shot my dad's .38 S&W Chief's Special yesterday, and it felt just like shooting a 9mm (the cartridge that is…not the gun).

    By comparison, modern .38s are chambered so you can shoot either the .38 Special, a .38 Special +P, or a .357 Magnum. If you're looking for something with "stopping power," the .357 could stop a bloody automobile engine in mid-stroke. It's got a kick like an Arkansas mule, and a recoil that will make you want to take up pumping iron. Same gun. Big difference.

    A 22LR gun – either handgun or rifle – has virtually no recoil. Once you've shot a .45, shooting a .22 is like handling a BB gun.

    What we've got here are several factors that are mutually exclusive in the goals department – stopping power generally requires a bigger bullet. Bigger bullets require more gunpowder and give you more recoil. Bigger calibers also require more room in a magazine (which generally means a bigger grip), or a longer cylinder in a revolver. So you have to find where your perfect caliber lies on a grid with two axes: stopping power on one and gun size/handling on the other. If you assume that the .45 has the greatest stopping power, but requires a larger grip to get an equivalent number of rounds in the magazine, at the other end of the scale would be a .22LR, which would offer lots of capacity in the magazine, but little to no stopping power. Somewhere in the middle, you'd find the .40 S&W and the 9mm, along with the .38 Special.

    The other issue is "availability." IF you can find ammo, the .45 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .22LR, .38 Special, and .357 Magnum cartridges will likely be something you can find. The more specialized and obscure loads will be harder to find.

    Does that help?

    • Your articles on ammunition scarcity caught my attention. I already have odd size bike tire tubes that few shops carry. It's a PITA.

  2. On the issue of stopping power, I've heard plenty of wonderful things about the 9mm from returning veterans and law enforcement shooters. I think virtually all of the .45s reputation comes simply from the fact that its our (grand)daddy's gun.

    From a purely mathematical standpoint, the rounds generate approximately the same force, depending on the particular loadings. Energy is basically mass x velocity. The .45 has more mass, less velocity. The 9mm has less mass, more velocity. You can see how that can even out, giving you the same energy, depending on variables. Either one does a hell of a job at killing.

    For me, ammo is simple. If I want a handgun, I personally go with 9mm. It's the most widely available cartridge for an autoloader. Second would be .45. I don't much mess around with anything else.

    For a revolver, there is only one choice for me: .357 Magnum. Brad mentions above buying a .38 Spcl and shooting .357 out of it, which may be a typo – the .357 is slightly longer than the .38 Spcl (to accomodate more powder) and won't fit in most .38 revolvers. It also is a higher pressure round, so I don't really advice firing a lot of anything at a higher pressure. For example, .38 Spcl +P will fire out of your .38, but your gun was built to fire .38, not +P. Eventually, you can wear the gun down faster.

    What you can always do, though, is buy a .357 Magnum and shoot .38 Spcl out of it. A lot of people buy a .357 Mag and shoot .38 Spcl for training as the lighter round is a bit cheaper.

    For most intents and purposes, .22LR is a target cartridge and a small game cartridge. Great to have for survival/hunting purposes because you can put 100 rounds, literally, in your pocket. Sure, assassins worldwide have been rumored or said to use .22 LR, but they're professionals intent on killing unsuspecting people.

    I think a first handgun purchase should be in 9mm or .45. It's not too expensive to shoot, easy to find, and effective for defense.

    • Kinetic energy is actually mass times velocity squared, while momentum is mass times velocity. So higher velocity makes a big difference to kinetic energy. So I'd reevaluate the comparison based on the kinetic energy formula.

      • Which would actually favor the superior velocity of the 9mm round. The point is still pretty much the same – both rounds can impact with similar forces through different means.

        I personally like a 115-124gr 9mm round traveling at 1000+fps which gives you an impact of around 355 ft. lbs, depending. Some hit harder, some lighter.

        A pretty standard loading for a .45 would be about a 180-200gr round traveling in the 820-880 fps which would impact around 360 ft. lbs, depending. Sure, some hit higher. Up to and above 400.

        Again, there are a lot of variables in weight and velocity, but saying that one is always better than the other is pretty ridiculous.

        The US Military ammo is usually a fairly light round with high velocity. I've found varying numbers, but it seems to be around 112-115gr bullet with a velocity in excess of 1200fps, which gives it a ft/lb impact of around 400, depending.

        • All things being (more or less) equal, I think that, once you have a cartridge that has some reasonable mass + velocity (i.e.: 9mm, 40 S&W, .45, .38 Special or .357 Magnum, et all) you should look for a gun that feels good in your hand, is easy to shoot, has a good trigger, and is easy for you to strip/clean. I like 1911s, but I don't necessarily recommend 'em – they are harder to disassemble and clean than a Glock or a Springfield XD. A .45 is a .45 is a .45…what you should shoot is what feels good in your hand. If you prefer a 9mm or .40 S&W, go with that. If you're not comfortable shooting a particular model, don't buy it – because you'll end up not wanting to shoot it.

        • Sound advice. It's the perfect answer, really, but one no one listens to because everyone wants to argue that what they chose is best.

          All of the rounds you mention excel at what they're supposed to do (kill things). The gun, and the brain behind it, are far more important.

          My choice is 9mm, though my next handgun purchase is either going to be a Ruger Vaquero in .357Mag or a 1911. Either an RIA or a Springfield GI .45 in OD Green. That is a beautiful gun in its simplicity.

    • It wasn't a typo. My dad's Chief's Special shoots .38 Specials or .38 Special +P (as long as you don't do it too often). S&W discontinued the model 36 in 1990. They brought it back a few years ago – but with a slightly longer cylinder, so it could accomodate either the .38 Special or the .357 Magnum cartridge. I haven't tried chambering a .357 in my dad's .38 – and won't. It was built for .38 Specials, and that's what I'll run in it. The newer ones are really .357 Magnum snubbies, and can handle the larger loads.

      • Cool, wasn't aware of that model. Though if a .38 Spcl can handle a .357 they should just call it a .357. Ohhh gun makers and their nomenclatures.

        Either way, I recommend the .357 Magnum cartridge. It's a blast.

  3. A local gun shop site (local to our second home), East Coast Gun Sales, only carries .38 Special and .380 Auto, which I gather is the same as .380 ACP, but is not the same as .38 ACP or .38 Auto. William Montgomery mentioned that .38 Special was more robust than .380 ACP. So I could see getting a .38 Special revolver, feeling comfortable I could get ammo for quite a while.

    Donal: Just to be clear, .380 and .38 Special are not the same caliber and are not compatible with each other. That is, a .38 special revolver cannot chamber or fire a .380 round. The .38 Special is a rimmed round (that is, the cartridge rim protrudes well beyond the case wall) while the .380, being designed for semi automatic pistols does not have a protruding rim, instead it has a prominent groove (called an extractor groove) behind the rim, which does not protrude beyond the limits of the cartridge walls.

    .380 is also called 9mm Kurz, 9x17mm, or 9mm short.

    There are a lot of 9mm lengths, but I have noticed that a lot of name brand semi-automatic pistols are available as 9×19mm Parabellum. East Coast only sells 9mm Luger and 9mm +P. The high pressure +P cartridges are two or three times as expensive, and I wonder if their production relies on a robust economy and if the high pressure leads to more maintenance. Ordinary 9mm Luger seems like a pretty safe bet, though.

    Popular cartridges often have multiple names. The 9mm Parabellum cartridge was invented by Georg Luger for his Parabellum P.08 pistol, which we generally refer to simply as a "Luger." Since then, the 9mm cartridge has gone by several names: 9mm Parabellum, 9mm Luger, 9x19mm, and 9mm NATO. All are the same and all are interchangeable with a few exceptions (since quite a few submachine guns were chambered in 9mm, there were some SMG-specific 9mm cartridges produced during and after WWII. These rounds have higher pressures than normal 9mm, which the SMG can handle because of its heavier construction. These should never be fired from a 9mm pistol.)

    In a similar vein, you will often hear rifle cartridges like .308 Winchester referred to as 7.62mm NATO, or .223 Remington referred to as 5.56mm NATO. Though there are small variations, they are functionally the same and should function the same in most firearms.

  4. In all of the discussions I've read, nobody mentions bullet placement. A well aimed shot in any caliber can be lethal. I'm aware that not all shooters are not that great when it comes to accuracy. A well-placed .22lr shot is more deadly than a .45 that misses!

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