Magoo: “A handgun cartridge may work better in a rifle than in a handgun, but it will not work as well as a rifle cartridge in a rifle. It can’t. Rifle and handgun cartridges are each optimized for their respective purposes. Interchange them and you give up the optimization. That is pretty much the long and the short of it.” True?

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31 Responses to Question Of The Day: Rifle or Pistol-Caliber Carbine?

  1. That sounds about right to me.

    I understand the appeal of having to stockpile only one type of ammo, but I think you’re just cheating yourself out of performance by putting handgun rounds in a longarm.

  2. The original reason for rifles and pistols using the same cartridge was from the Old West when a six-gun in .44-40 and a lever action in the same caliber made it easy for the cowboy to carry only one type of cartridge. He also only had to worry about finding one type in the out-of-the-way general store where there was limited availability. Now days with much better availability and cartridge selection the need goes away. However, there may be some individuals who need (or think they need) a pistol caliber carbine. Less wall penetration in home defense, less kick when fired, better stopping power from a .45 ACP carbine than a .223 carbine. There will be a tad more velocity from the longer barreled .45 in the carbine but will it be a man stopper? More fuel for the debate.

  3. I guess it could be a simplistic rule of thumb, but it isn’t a great way to think about it.

    The difference in thinking originated from early design history. You make a pistol as small and portable as possible while still retaining a specific goal in mind…cartridge to plink, stop a man, or drop a hunted animal. Traditionally the metallurgy resulted in pistols with relatively low pressure cartridges (15,000 – 30,000 psi).

    Rifles often don’t have that restriction in weight and can have more robust receivers to handle rifle cartridge pressures (40-70,000psi)

    Thus giving the impression that rifles are always better at performing any particular task if (AND ONLY IF) this holds true —->more power=better
    This provides a certain way of thinking. If a .22 pistol is good then a .22 rifle must be better, but a .50 would be even better. Thus a cannon would be ideal and a ship mounted howitzer would be the end all solution. What if the only thing you were planning on shooting was a couple of squirrels for the dinner plate?

    What we forget however is that the rifles follow the same rules as pistols with respect to design parameters. A rifle doesn’t have to be built to accommodate a “rifle” cartridge. It could be sized down in weight and size to accommodate a “pistol” cartridge to allow a more steady hold on the target due to the addition of a riflestock. That is the real reason that rifles have an advantage over a pistol…it allows a more steady platform to hold on target.

    The problem is that we have in our mind what is a rifle cartridge and what is a pistol cartridge. A .454 casull or .500 s&w is a “handgun cartridge” and produce more net energy than most common rifle cartridges. On the flip side a .25 acp really would be no better if chambered in a rifle.

    Take it to a practical level and an MP5 or Thompson Sub-machine gun is smaller in size and lighter than most rifles because they are build to handle lower pressure cartridges. This gives a good balance of accurate power and more control due to lower recoil….that is if we have determined that the chambering isn’t “overkill” for the task at hand.

    • +1

      It’s not exactly apples to apples as even the weakest of handgun calibers have bullets that are proportionally much heavier relative to velocity. An AK usually runs a 124gr @ ~2400 fps, AR runs a 55 gr @~ 3100 fps, and 7.62 NATO might run 150gr- 175gr around 2700 fps. For pistols 9mm rarely gets below 125gr, and .40 and .45 are well into the .308 weights and above. If you believe in larger holes and are not concerned about drop because your distances are short then you might want a “pistol” caliber carbine (PCC).

      The only thing I would say is that if the object is compactness some PCCs buy you nothing. The receiver of an MP-5 derivative is very long, as are the OALs of the MACs and UZIs. If I wanted to optimize the cartridge performance while keeping OAL to a minimum I would go with a long slide Glock 18 variant or a bullpup rifle caliber.

      BTW a Thompson sub gun is in no way light.

      According to wiki

      10.8 lb (4.9 kg) empty (M1928A1)
      10.6 lb (4.8 kg) empty (M1A1)
      Length 33.5 in (850 mm) (M1928A1)
      32 in (810 mm) (M1A1/M1)
      barrel 10.5 in (270 mm)
      barrel with optional Cutts Compensator 12 in (300 mm)

  4. For some rifles I would agree. For others I would not. In regards to a MP5 or an UMP the 9 mm and the .45 charges seem to do stellar, in fact they are optimized for those charges. As with everything else on the planet, it depends on what you are using it for. Applications change, versatility would be my goal.

    In short, I would want the low recoil of a 9mm in the MP5 for clearing a room if I was a black ops operator. I, personally, would want that smaller, quicker gun and charge over say a shortened SCAR or M4.

    The same can be said for a pistol. My goal is to own and use a FN Five SeveN. The charge is optimized for a rifle but offers great performance in a handgun platform.

  5. Handgun-caliber rifles and carbines are lots of fun, offer obvious convenience for handgun shooters, and certainly have their uses — and some advantages. (For example, with handgun ammo a tube magazine will hold more rounds.) However, they do have significant disadvantages versus long guns using conventional rifle ammunition, particularly in ballistics. That’s just a fact. It shouldn’t get anyone’s nose out of joint. Meanwhile, it’s not like rifle cartridges are ideal for handguns. Imagine a M1911 chambered for .30-30.

    • I have a 1911 chambered in .308 winchester. It actually works pretty well out to 150 yards or so.

    • I knew the day would finally come – I agree with Magoo…
      Pistol caliber carbines are what they are:
      Easy to handle, a blast to shoot, useful in a lot of ways (including defense).
      However they are not the same as a rifle round. If we drag out the well worn toolbox analogy, owning a claw hammer does not put you in the home demolition business. Can you tear down a wall with one? Maybe, but why would you?
      On a side note, I once shot rounds from a Contender pistol chambered for 30-30, my palm was black and blue for weeks…

  6. The statement uses the term “optimization” in a way which suggests “optimization” is defined by “best on average”. This is not strictly true, so the statement is false.

    Why Pistol Caliber Carbines are Not Just a Novelty:

    A pistol caliber carbine actually offers a lot more than novelty. Hard and fast rules are often too general to be useful when it comes to a particular shooting scenario. Determining the best caliber and platform is not about following general guidelines or general anecdotes, is really a matter of being able to access your goals and requirements and knowing where different cartridges, knowledge of where different combinations of technology rate according to various metrics, selecting representative metrics for your scenario, and successfully prioritizing them for your scenario. If you do this, there are many completely normal and uncontrived cases where a pistol caliber carbine is more “optimal” than what is thought of as a traditional rifle caliber.

    Since the projectile is only being accelerated while it is in the barrel, the longer barrel actually drastically increases projectile velocity. The increase in velocity between a 4″ and an 18″ barreled .357 magnum between 50%-125% depending on bullet weight and the speed at which your powder burns. Check out Ballistics By the Inch for extensive empirical evidence of this. When this increase puts the muzzle energy in the regime normally though of as typical of a “rifle”, the label “pistol caliber” becomes disputable.

    Pistol caliber carbines allow you to use slower burning powders which can give you much more velocity than you could get with a fast burning powder in the same casing. Slower powders also feel different to shoot. Check any good reloading manual for confirmation of this.

    Pistol caliber carbines, with their increased barrel length, have increased sight radius which doesn’t necessarily make them intrinsically more accurate, but makes them far more forgiving to aim, resulting in increased accuracy. This is easy to prove to yourself.

    Pistol caliber carbines, for example a .44 magnum, with factory ammo are comparable in muzzle energy of a 30-30 and the ammo is far cheaper. Chrono both and factor in bullet weight to prove this. Based on the local foliage a heavier bullet may make more sense.

    As unintuitive as it sounds at close range (inside of 100 yards) a .44 magnum carbine actually has slightly higher energy than a 45-70 gov’t depending on ammo choice. Overall, it is comparable. (The energy of the .44 magnum however quickly diminishes over distance due to lower inertia of the lighter projectile and the 45-70 is clearly superior in energy at longer ranges). So if you believe energy equates to dropping power and you are going to be shooting something like deer inside of 100 yards, it would be far more economical to go with a .44 mag carbine. Check out Chuck Hawks rifle cartridge velocity/energy tables at muzzle and 200 yards, or put your chrono down range, aim carefully and do the math.

    Pistol caliber carbines hold a lot of rounds. Pistol caliber leverguns have one of the most compact (in size) actions, resulting in a very compact rifle. They are also legal everywhere and fit inconspicuously in a golf Sunday bag. Check state and local restrictions on firearms.

    Short straight-walled pistol cartridges are very easy and very cheap to reload, so you can shoot a lot more, and therefore have more fun. You can confirm this to yourself by just trying it.

    On the Idea of “Optimal”:

    The idea of “optimization” is meaningless without defining your cost function. Your cost function is dependent on your goals. “Works Better” depends on what goals you are trying to achieve.

    If you look at the math, and the empirical testing there are some cases where a certain pistol cartridge carbine is “optimal” with respect to perfectly reasonable and uncontrived shooting scenarios, such as hunting deer inside of 100 yards, and as an economical and versatile platform for reloading experiments. I have not posited any pathological scenarios where due to some contrivance, a pistol caliber carbine fares better in my chosen metrics.

    So if the nature of our intended use requires energy inside of 100 yards, medium inertia due to the local foliage, and capacity, then an 1894 is more “optimal” than a 30-30 or a 45-70. What is given up is a bunch of stuff that is not relevant.

    You can make absolutist statements about what is “optimal” with respect to the average of all conceivable shooting scenarios, however these statements have limited utility. The variation in shooting scenarios is not gaussian distributed around some average case with some knowable standard deviation. Really firearms applications are a varied collection of special cases. For example, if you compute the average of a bunch of -1s and a bunch of +1s you get something around 0, however no case “0” exists. Absolute statements about things of this nature are equivalently uninformative when it comes to trying to decide what platform and caliber to select.

    -D

    • All you are saying is that .44 Remington Magnum might well be suitable at 100 yards and less. Great. Then I’d have to carry two rifles with me when hunting: one for 100 yards and less, and the other for everything else. Okay, why do I want to lug around two rifles all day when I need only one?

      Rifles are designed to be effective at longer ranges. A handgun round tends to give that up in return for some other consideration — say, ammo interchangeability. It’s not rocket surgery.

      If you are shopping for a first/only rifle, you probably wouldn’t want to select one that chambers handgun ammo — you end up with a rifle that doesn’t have true rifle capability. If you want a rifle, get a rifle. Then when you need a rifle, you will have a rifle. Once you have a rifle, then you can fill out your ensemble with more niche-oriented firearms. Guns are a lot more simple than people like to make them at times.

      • Hrm… I think I said a lot more than that.

        Also many people outside of the middle of the country don’t ever have the opportunity to take shots while hunting outside of 75 yards… particularly in the woods, while sitting in a tree… Most people know in advance approximately at what range they will likely be shooting (as this is dictated by where they are hunting) and choose a suitable rifle or carbine. There is no need to carry two rifles, and I made no claim to that effect. Particularly regarding lever carbines, they are actually lighter and more compact and easier to negotiate the woods and treestands with. For comparable power at the likely ranges in that scenario, they are a great choice.

        The suitability of rifles at longer range shooting a function of the platform as a whole, not necessarily just the caliber. A .223 TC or AR pistol would be less suited to long range shooting than a .357 carbine. Also a .223 TC or an AR pistol would not be considered a “rifle” because it fires rifle ammo. You would never make claims that the power of these short barreled firearms is comparable to their rifle counterparts.

        The reason for pistol caliber carbines is not solely for the sake of ammo interchangeability. In fact, the original 44-40 rifles had stronger receivers which made 44-40 “high speed” loads a possibility. The 44-40 “high speed” would quite possibly damage a pistol. They contained more powder and thus more power, without having to retool the cartridge casings. Likewise, a modern .44 or .357 carbine can handle higher pressures than a revolver and you can tune the cartridge to your application. There is a marginal amount of risk in this practice if you are not organized, but everything doesn’t necessarily have to be idiot-proof (unless…).

        Regarding “true rifle capability”, I don’t know how that is defined. I would be skeptical that one could fix a concrete definition to that, since rifles applications span from plinking at 50 yards to busting engine blocks at 1000. These are all “true” applications. They are not “false”.

        As far as a first rifle is concerned, a carbine is a fine choice if it fits your intended use for it, and there are indeed MANY common uses in the realm of hunting and home defense for pistol caliber carbines. It is a rifle because it has a stock and is fired from the shoulder, not because of some arbitrary label associate with the cartridge casing you load up and load into it.

        -D

  7. I would vote “not proven”. As has been said (far more eruditely, above) it depends.

    My and my wife’s guns are for fun and self defense. In our scenarios all shooting is it < 100 yards. more likely < 10 yards. For us the choice of pistol caliber carbines gives us powerful lights and lasers mounted on the longer barrel of a carbine for an unnoticeable performance penalty.
    I would also think that a BG facing a carbine would be more intimidated than one looking at a homeowner with a handgun, but that is just my uninformed opinion.

  8. IIRC, pistol-caliber carbines were popular with cowboys primarily because of common and affordable ammunition. A lot of farmers and cowboys cast their own bullets over the stove or campfire, and reloaded their brass with ingenious (if imprecise) combination tools that were a primer punch, resizer, and bullet press all in one.

    Pistol-caliber carbines still have much to recommend them, as long as you understand their limitations. They shoot cheap ammunition, relative to premium hunting ammo or 5.56×45 TAP, and they can share that ammunition (and frequently the magazines as well) with a duty-capable pistol. They also give better practical accuracy than a pistol (similar to rifle accuracy at shorter ranges), but with very few exceptions they have a limited engagement range of 150 yards.

    They’re easy for inexperienced shooters to handle, because they produce little recoil or muzzle blast. The magnum-pistol carbines give enormously enhanced velocity and hitting power compared to pistols of the same caliber; any of them can hit as hard as a 5.56 within 100 yards with full-power loads, and the big ones can hit as hard as a 7.62×39. OTOH, other pistol calibers (9mm) only show a slight velocity improvement from longer barrels, and others (.45 ACP) show little or none at all.

    • The magnum-pistol carbines give enormously enhanced velocity and hitting power compared to pistols of the same caliber; any of them can hit as hard as a 5.56 within 100 yards with full-power loads,…

      But at 100 yards, what are the odds of hitting your target with a large caliber magnum pistol, versus a rifle? For most people the rifle is the gun of choice in this situation.

      • With a pistol? Very low. With a .44 Magnum Ruger Deerfield or Henry Big Boy, however, a standing deer at 100 yards is meat on the table.

  9. Long straight-walled magnum cartridges are not optimized for handguns. Most of them do significantly better out of a longer barrel. They are really carbine cartridges. Short cartridges do not see nearly as much gain. They really are handgun cartridges.

    The classic .45 is a great handgun cartridge: 230 grain reaches 90% of max velocity @ 5″, 95% @7-8″. There’s no point in a .45 ACP carbine beyond whatever stability you get from a stock. A standard or longslide will get you just about everything you’re going to get.

    But .357 takes longer to reach its full potential. With 125 grain, 90% reached at 8-9″ and 95% at 12″. With 158 90% @7-8″ and %95 @10″. A 16″ .357 loaded with 125 grain rounds gives you 30% more velocity over a 5″ handgun. That’s not insignificant.

  10. I would love a Kel Tec Sub2000 that take G19 mags as a companion to my Glock or a .357 lever action to go with my S&W revolver. Cartridge compatibility is a big selling point. Especially if your talking about what to grab in a bug out situation. But, if I have to do some serious damage at long range (>100 yds) Neither of those would be my choice.

    Unfortunately my Marlin 336 in 30-30 doesn’t get shot as much because ammo cost can be a bit prohibitive. Which is why people flock to the AK or AR (IMHO). You get decent range out of either of them, ammo is cheap(er) and they get the job done with a high level of effectiveness. That’s why my SAR-1 gets shot on every range trip and holds a special place in my heart 😉

    So I guess when it all comes down to it, I’d rather my rifle be in a rifle cartridge.

    • Nope…it is a misguided and often incorrect rule of thumb. Not even sure why this was a blog entry.

      According to design…22lr is a “rifle cartridge”
      Does that mean use in a pistol is a compromise? Or that being a low pressure, straight walled cartridge while chambered in a rifle/carbine is somehow less than ideal?

      According to the logic of the blog…anything other than a bottleneck, high pressure chambering in a long gun is some sort of compromise. That is a very short sided way to think.

  11. Personally I think a FN PS90 with a Five Seven backup pistol is a perfect modern alternative to the cowboy carbine-pistol combo for home(stead) protection. That’s 70 rounds of 5.7 x28 at 2350 ft/s, without reloading, right there.

  12. Seems like there’s a lot of overlap on TTAG today.

    I don’t think it’s accurate to try and paint pistol caliber carbines as superfluous in and of themselves. Certainly there are clear balistic/performance differences between rifle rounds and pistol rounds but only as different as their varied applications.

    For reasons I posted earlier in the Munchkin Home Defense thread, I’m of the opinion that something like the Marlin 1894C is the IDEAL home defense weapon for inside the home, particularly for those of a smaller stature (wives) and particularly when paired with someone weilding either a handgun or shotgun in support.

    To my mind, that carbine loaded with say 158gr .38+p ammo provides the best balance to all of the concerns when defending your home from within: Better than decent stopping power (probably approaching .357 mag. from a 3-4″bbl revolver) that doesn’t tip too far toward the side of overpenetration with (I’m guessing) less flash and bang than from a 5.56 or 7.62 and certainly less recoil, a good magazine capacity with some 10 rounds at the ready in a handy, maneuverable carbine that grants extended sight radius and velocity without even approching cumbersome, awkward or heavy.

    Now if the end of days comes down, I’m not saying it’s the best tool for the job (though I’m not saying it isn’t still for my wife). To defend my neighborhood in an extended blackout/natural disaster scenario the AK or AR (or whatever) probably is better for me, but that’s a very different application. I have a framing hammer for basic construction and a finishing hammer for detail work and I wouldn’t think of trying to mix them up for each other’s job.

  13. Pistol cal. long guns are fun but…. I’ll take a 5.56, 7.62×39, 12 gauge, etc.. over one.

    The lowest (and actually my favourite) power rifle round I’d use is my M1 Carbine in .30 carbine. And only cause with JHPs, 15 round mags, and a battle tested platform it is a good one.

  14. I can’t find a pistol that chambers my 7.62x54r ‘steel core ammo with that berdan primer from some east bloc nation that no longer needs it’ – thanks James McMurtry.

    So I guess I come down on the side of different horses for different courses. If I could find such a pistol, it would probably print something fierce, especially in lightweight summer clothing…

  15. I suppose whether a pistol cartridge works “better” than a rifle cartridge in a rifle depends largely on what the job at hand is going to involve. If you plan on using a 5.56 carbine to clear an apartment or town house of possible burglars, then I would argue that a Car-15 in 9mm is going to perform better because it’s less likely to result in innocent people dying. If the purpose is to have a main battle rifle, then I’m guessing a rifle cartridge will work better.

  16. Magoo’s trying to make a black-and-white issue out of something that defies simplification. Where do shotguns fall on this handgun-rifle continuum? Give a pistol a longer barrel and a stock, and call it a carbine. Some people like it. What’s the big deal? Like the shotgun, the pistol-caliber carbine fills a role, and in that role it does very well.

    Pistol-caliber carbines are useful as a ranch gun. All the punch and range you need to handle large-vermin, in a light gun that doesn’t have the heavy action and barrel of a centerfire rifle.

    Pistol-caliber carbines are useful in indoor applications. Less penetration (although a FMJ 9mm will still go straight through six sheets of sheetrock), much less recoil. There’s a reason assault teams still use MP5s.

  17. I would really like the law to allow deer hunting with the handgun cartridge rifles and carbines. Of course they would need to meet the minimum energy standards. I hunt deer in a part of Wisconsin that is shotgun only(but allows handguns)

    I’ve taken enough venison with those shotguns; I think carrying an 1892 or it’s Rossi clone in .44 Mag. would be ideal. Light and easy in brush, greater “fun factor” when compared to a shotgun. In this area any shot is at 100 yards or less anyway. C’mon WI, get that rule passed.

  18. I know I’m late on this, but here’s my answer to the question & my comment –
    Answer: to each his own !

    Comment: I collect .44 cal firearms from Black powder, 44-40, Russian,special,magnum, automag, .444, ect, ect.
    That said even the mighty .444 in a Thompson or Marlin your stretching it @ 200 yards for silhouette or hunting. Would I want to be a bad guy or animal down range of any caliber – oh hell no, do I hunt yes, & never bagged farther out than 125 yrds, there for back to the Original question stated & answer I said.

    p.s.
    I did brake tradition to what I collect, I Did want to reach out & touch in another county so I bought a Barrett semi-auto .50, so I’ve got all the distances covered now “lol” !

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