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You can’t really expect American Rifleman to tell its readers what caliber to carry in their self-defense gun. For one thing, American Rifleman is an NRA publication; the gun rights org gets big bucks from ammunition suppliers. For another, it’s a Miller Lite-type dilemma: great penetration or more expansion? Blowing a hole through the bad guy’s vitals or causing maximum tissue damage (“pain”). Field Editor Richard Mann continues the caliber wars by gelatin-testing some 100 rounds for velocity, penetration and expansion (excluding my chosen .45 carry Hornady Critical Defense). Mr. Mann provides all the raw data in a few charts that studiously avoid ranking the rounds. [Click here to view.] He sums up the “result” this way . . .

So, should you carry the combination you think will cause the most pain or the one you think will penetrate through to the vitals no matter the shot angle and regardless of what gets in the bullet’s way? Common sense should tell us that the failsafe, penetration, is our first priority; if pain fails to stop the attack—and it might—we have to rely on the bullet’s ability to drive through vital organs. The ability to inflict the maximum amount of pain should be our second goal. This makes choosing the handgun/bullet combination simple—you want the combination that penetrates to a sufficient depth and damages the most tissue in the process.

Yes, but what about the shooter’s ability to handle a given round’s recoil and, thus, place his or her shots accurately? And how about the concealability factor, which precludes carrying, say, a .50-caliber (Action Express) Desert Eagle? The cost to practice? Magazine capacity restrictions?

Hey Nick, maybe we should create an algorithm, plug-in this data and tell the truth about self-defense calibers? It’s a tough job . . . .

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  1. After perusing the data, it would appear that almost all of the loads tested would result in a shoot-through, barring extenuating circumstances of course. I find this mildly unnerving.

      • Not unnerving in the sense that I’m worried about using my weapon. Unnerving in the sense that it could give the grabbers a data point in their “guns are too dangerous!” crusade. A poorly conducted test, in other words.

        • No, a poorly conducted test would be one where the data is manipulated to fit the conclusion… This one is pretty solid

  2. I will use this article for the averages.
    How do your measure pain???
    Is there a painometer out there???
    I figure being hit with a .22lr round hurts like hell.
    So is a .45acp = Hurts like hell + 5.

  3. The link to the article & chart showed that his data was incomplete, innaccurate, and hard to believe because of inconsistancies like barrel length in some but not others being mentioned as well as leaving out a whole bunch of calibers that people use today.

    Balistic gel does not take into account the variables you will find in the real world like bone, muscle, clothing, and stuff carried in pockets, that will change your penatration results.

  4. A lot of people base their choices on testing, primarily the FBI standard. Most all handgun rounds will penetrate 12″ of ballistic gelatin with a denim cover. However, real world wounding says otherwise. We see one shot stops with .22LR’s, and then 12+ hits from .45’s and .40’s which do not result in a stop to the threat. Just recently I saw a GSW to the chest where the round hit squarely in the upper torso, just as most people train. However because of the breast bone and other tissue the bullet didn’t even penetrate the heart.

    What does this mean? Handgun rounds suck! Shot placement is key, and nearly all threats will take more than one shot to drop/stop regardless of the caliber used. I suppose +P ammo might give you a little bit of an edge, but is it lost in follow-up shots?

    As an instructor, I have to advocate the round that allows people to make fast shots on target. A .45 is worthless to a woman who can only get off one shot every 3 seconds, where instead she could easily put out 2 rounds a second with a 9mm. Also we should not forget that the type of gun used matters a lot of recoil management. A polymer gun in .40 will snap, which a metal frames 9mm will shoot like a bb gun.

      • Too expensive, too hard to get parts. Also, their political positions are distressing: they’ll sell Mexico guns (which WILL fall into the “wrong” hands, but they act like it would be a tragedy to sell the same guns to American citizens because they *could* fall into the “wrong” hands). As they say:

        “Because you suck, and we hate you.” -HK Marketing department

    • fiveseven pistol.

      a group of us did ballistic tests vs 45 acp, 44 mag, 9mm, 38 special, 357 magnum, etc.

      5.7×28 penetration was suprisingly effective, and recoil remarkably light. follow up shots even for women won’t be a problem.

      sure, it’s loud and muzzle blast is impressive. but our actual tests proved its ballistic effectiveness.

  5. People who are chemically motivated, mentally unstable, extremely emotional, or just don’t give a crap, don’t react to pain all that well. You have to stop them. That usually means more than one shot. So, if you can’t reliably shoot a larger caliber, don’t. If you can, go big with a heavy bullet.

    • I agree with Rob. My next gun is going to be a serbu super shorty for that very reason.

      They have become popular enough now that they are making holsters for them and that is always a good thing because it means that the product is going to be around for a while.

      • That’s great for one guy: you can put three shells worth of buckshot/slugs into him before you have to reload…

        The problem is when you have to face down multiple assailants….

  6. Wait… this chart upends some of what I had heard/read/assumed about cartridge performance.

    Average 9mm: 1168 ft/sec, 14.3 penetration, 1.57 expansion
    Average .40 S&W: 1144 ft/sec, 13.7 penetration, 1.69 expansion
    Average .45 ACP: 984 ft/sec, 13.5 penetration, 1.36 expansion

    The average 9mm self-defense round outperforms the .45 ACP… and I can have 15 in my Glock 19 vs. 7 or 8 in a 1911? What the…

    And then you have my personal ammo:

    9mm Speer 124-gr Gold-Dot +P: 1168 – 13.5 – 2.00

    vs. well… nothing really in .40? The Winchester PDX1 has 2.08 of expansion, but only 11″ of penetration. The Speer 155-gr Gold Dot has LESS penetration at 13, and LESS expansion at 1.7 vs. the smaller, softer-recoiling 9mm? And there isn’t a single .45 round that combines that particular penetration & expansion compared to a 9mm? And I didn’t even look that closely at .38 or .357 Magnum, but the averages seem to favor the 9mm Luger. What the…

    Is there any other data out there that corroborates vs. contradicts this chart?

    I’ve always thought 9mm is “good enough” for my needs, and I like the cost of the ammo especially for practice, as well as the lack of recoil. But this chart is essentially claiming that 9mm might be superior to all other comers.

    Can this be right?

    • I must also say that the “facts” this chart is presenting does not match up too well with what is printed on the side of the ammo boxes…..I wonder who is correct?

    • The expansion factor figures are stated as a percent of the size OF THAT ROUND, therefore a 1.5 for a 9mm is smaller than a 1.5 for a 45, meaning performance isn’t the same.

      I think the criticism of this article is way off base, not to mention awfully nitpicky. Mann isnt steering readers towards using large calibers, and states at the outset that 22s make people plenty dead, plenty often. I took it as an interesting chart, not definitive, but providing a rough comparison. I wish the expansion factors had been stated as absolute measurements instead of ratios. Is there some better way to test the effects on real tissue ? Shooting some pig torsos ?

    • Id say the 9mm is definitely “good enough”. The whole ‘9mm is a pussy round’ thing is totally undeserved and born of ignorance.

    • No. It is not. 10″ of penetration is by no means worthless, and in most cases works even better (but some worry that you will hit at an angle or through an arm or something and not hit a ‘vital’). 40, 45, 357, 10mm DESTROY 9mm. You get a huge selection of effective rounds to choose from in 40, 45, 357 while having to settle on the 124 +p (which is a smaller, less powerful version of the above rounds). Penetration is huge with 12-14″ being great, and you want an expanding bullet making as big a cavity as possible. The third thing that many people desire (and what made the 357 the God of manstopping) is the stretch cavity. while you MUST count on penetration, A good pressure wave from a round hitting with roughly 500-700 foot pounds of energy can instantly INCAPACITATE a bad guy. The body has nerve centers, the stretching of the nerve membranes disrupts their potentials and causes a temporary stunning effect (like a boxers punch, or the effects of stun bags, batons, etc). Thes nerve plexi are sometimes associated with factors that effect blood pressure, heart rate, and vasodilation. Of course, there is an advantage to carrying micro guns and this is where the 9mm really shines. Bottom line, try to use the most powerful gun you can that you can shoot ACCURATELY with reasonable followup shots…..which is a question that only the shooter can know. Practice, practice, practice. BTW: Your nightstand handgun should be heavier than your carry gun which should be heavier than your micropocket gun, and the nightstand handgun will ODVIOUSLY be smaller than the carbine or shotgun it will be used to get to (multiple loads for multiple platforms).

      • “. 40, 45, 357, 10mm DESTROY 9mm”

        no they really dont. if they did, nobody would use 9mm if it was that inferior.

        there is little measurable difference between those calibers. obviously 357 magnum is more powerful, though there is still no guarantee that it will stop a assailant.

        • “. 40, 45, 357, 10mm DESTROY 9mm”

          no they really dont. if they did, nobody would use 9mm if it was that inferior. ”

          I disagree. Yes, they would. How many times have you heard it recited over and over again “with modern ammunition, the 9mm is fully capable as a defensive round” blah, blah, blah, (like the manufacturers have ignored the .40 and .45). So, yes, most people will think the 9mm is fine.

          Plus it’s already been pointed out that those who don’t like heavier recoil of the .40 S&W or .45 ACP would be better served with the 9mm.

        • Then why doesnt everybody just use 9mm if there were no advantages to the more powerful rounds? I have guns in all of these rounds, by the way. There really is a reason why the 40 is the round most cops (and the feds, by the way) use. There is also a reason that everyone has heard of the fearsome reputation of the 357 magnum. Kinetic energy can drop you without hitting a vital because it stretches a nerve plexus (like taking a baton to the ribs). It is a little tough for the 9mm to generate the required energy to have this effect, and the wound cavity is smaller than the other rounds too.
          There really is a place for all of these guns though. I have a Glock 22 with a 9mm conversion barrel (the best of both worlds.

      • 40 is potentially overpowered. from a recent ttag DGU video in which .40 was used, serious overpenetration occurred, nearly all the rounds sailed right through the assailant without stopping.

        • I think the 40 is whatever you want it to be. There are literaly that many choices of outstanding loads that do whatever you want them to do, from mimicking the 9MM (except with a larger diameter, and expansion while limiting penetration), to rivaling the Godly 357. You can go from 135 grain to 180 or 200 (I think), and energy in the 300 lbs to 600 or more lbs energy. The 9mm and 45 certainly have their charms (and places) but the 40 was designed for those who wanted alot of the beneifits that each of those rounds offered in one platform. All hail the most popular round in America and by far the choice of the police (and the FBI, by the way). I will take 17 rounds of (near) 357 magnum goodness in my Glock 22 in a 9mm sized platform, thank you very much. I have a 9mm conversion barrel to complete the package for the cheap ammo angle.

    • I don’t want to be nit picky but there is no such thing as an average round. I would like to see the comparision of calibers using the same time of ammunition out of the same length barrel.

  7. Nice numbers, but that is about it.
    So gelatine blocks don’t tell the whole story, yup I get that. There is a company, Silver Shamrock Labs, that makes Realistic ballistic dummies.
    These have cavities for lungs, water like filled hearts, and bones.
    Did I mention these are NOT CHEAP! but they will give you the best ballistics information possible.

    Also what is comfortable for the shooter? Like many have said if you don’t feel comfortable then it is pointless to stick you with a gun you can’t shoot. Shot placement is key.

    If my wife doesn’t like my 45, and she can empty a magazine of 9 mm inside a small radius then use the nine. It isn’t that hard to understand.

    What is important is to understand your tool of choice. So be it a 45, 9 or somewhere in between, understanding how the bullet reacts, and practicing makes all the difference in the world. I prefer the Mozambique shooting technique. Like many here, two center mass and one for the head. If that doesn’t stop them you either missed or they are zombies!

  8. I too, use the GDHP 124gr +P 9mm in my S&W M&Ps. I feel very capable of stopping a threat, and shooting until the threat is stopped.

    I train to shoot until the threat changes shape, or catches on fire… And I carry a spare magazine every time I strap my pistol on.

    • Expensive and ineffective. has a test showing the results of a 9mm Glaser round on bare gelatin and firing through a simulated wall into gelatin; the round fails to adequately penetrate the bare media (not even reaching 8″), but ironically the slug failed to fragment after passing through the simulated wall and achieved almost 12″ of penetration.

  9. I think I’m going to buy a J frame in .357 Magnum as a backup. Primary carry is a Kahr P9, and if that doesn’t get it done I bet some 125 grain .357s will—if the thing doesn’t leap out of my hand after the first shot. LOL

      • OUCH. I’ve fired the 125 gr JHPs in a Scandium .357 snub and it felt like I caught a fastball barehanded. The heavier round must feel like an M80 going off in your hand.

        Still, it should only take one.

        • I find it hard to fathom the 12oz 357 in a 1 7/8″ barrel. The short barrel really erases the 357’s fantastic attributes. I have a SP101 with a 3″ barrel and you lose very little velocity with the 3″ barrel and, at 27oz you can actually use the gun…as a gun…rather than as a flashbang….IN YOUR HAND (ouch).

        • I figure the guy will be blind and deaf after the first one anyway, hopefully giving me a chance to beat feet.

  10. no handgun that can be reasonably carried all day can be counted on for a 1 shot stop. period. a 9 with a large cap mag is probably the best balance. this comes from an avowed wheel gun man.

    • I would take a Glock 22 (40) with 17 rounds over the Glock 17(9) with 19 rounds. Way more selection of effective rounds in the most popular gun in the US for law enforcement. You can also purchase a conversion barrel and shoot 9mm for practice or put the extractor in as well and call it a Glock 17. Win win

      • .357 Sig is just a $110 drop in away as well for the Glock .40s. So for about $220 plus an extractor and some 9mm mags, you have 3 in one.

  11. To me, this says there isn’t much difference whether you prefer a 9mm, .40 or .45. With modern defense loads, it’s a moot point. Shoot what is most comfortable and accurate for you to shoot. A pistol is what gets you to your rifle. 🙂

    • But there really is a difference. A 357 is like a man, and a 9mm is like a woman. The article did not discuss what a high energy round could do in addition to the tissue damage. These rounds could enter the body near a nerve center with such force that the person would be INCAPACITATED for a period of time, but if someone looked at only the permanent damage, they would have no evidence as to why because the stretch cavity left no observable evidence.
      Bottom line, dont let somebody punch you real hard in the side because you think you will be fine in that it wont leave a mark for you may be on the ground for quite some time recovering (and understanding what I am telling you now).

  12. Too many variables for the real world. Bottom line: pick one (or 2 or 3, whatever), learn how to use it. Hope you don’t ever have to.

    • The ’10’ is a fearsome beast and capable of equaling (and even surpassing)the 357. Nothing like a punch to the solar plexus from the pressure wave (stretch cavity) putting you on the ground. Fackler just could not imagine that effect and had to have ‘observed tissue damage’.

  13. Never forget the 1st rule of a gun fight is to have a gun. I carry a Kahr PM40 or Xds 45acp i have less rounds but i always have a gun even home carry. Like most of us i have the 15 or 19 round 9mm but I found myself leaving home without a gun because the Glock 19 was hard to carry for me.

  14. IMHO, too many people put too much emphasis on finding the ideal self defense round. More time and energy should be placed on being able to accurately place rounds on target via different types of drills with their weapon of choice. I admit it can be fun to look at numbers and see how ammo “stack up” against each other on paper. But at the end of the day, shot placement and number of shots on target will have a much greater impact on the outcome of a gun battle over ammo type, and, dare I say, caliber, as well.

    • I agree. This information is good to know, but the best gun is the one you are comfortable carrying and shooting. You people who are saying that a single shot wont stop an opponent are blowing things way out of proportion. All the world is not the Miami shootout.

      • i’ve never said 1 shot won’t stop the badguy. you can’t count on 1 shot out of a handgun to do it. majic bullets don’t exist, be prepared to keep firing. prepare for the worst, hope for the best.

  15. On the shooter’s end, it all comes down to where can you place the round, how deep will it go, and what will it do when it gets there. Find the gun that you’re good at shooting and get a whole lot better by practicing.

  16. This discussion reminds me of a mission I was on in the mid 1980’s. It was a basic rescue mission but the government wanted a small footprint. We weren’t able to rescue the pilots but we did gather some high quality intel. Making our way back over the border proved tough. One of our guys went down but I saw the eyes of the enemy. I capped off a couple hundred rounds on my M60 and then I picked up his minigun. I probably shot 1000 rounds of 7.62mm at this guy and all I had to show for it was a trail of busted chem-light juice.

  17. A return to the video posted a couple of times here of the doc lecturing emts on GSWs. One of his comments was if you want to kill someone, use a rifle, as it will have a much bigger wound channel and greater tissue damage. It is very hard to kill someone with a handgun; 6 out of 7 victims survive. Those who die usually bleed to death, either because of a lack of medical care or too many holes in blood carrying structures (heart, liver, major arteries). The only one shot stopping shot with a handgun is a CNS injury, and for instant kill, you have to take out the midbrain.

    • Please remember that the operative word is Incapacitate, not kill. Placement, penetration, and a big cavity are very important. The 357 magnum did not kill many of the people who were shot with it. What it did was hit with enough kinetic energy that a pressure wave (stretch cavity) disrupted a nerve center (probably the solar plexus) and created a stunning effect. The officer would go over and pick up the BG’s weapon while standing over them for a few seconds, minutes until they came around again. That is, if they ever came around again…heh heh heh.

  18. While the more data out there, the better. The author does not mention the stretch cavity and the beneifit of a pressure wave caused by the kinetic energy as it passes through various nerve centers of the body (usually the solar plexus). This is the secret to the 357 magnum and how it ‘incapacitates’ its victims. Watch a 357 or similar projectile as it slams into ballistic gelatin in slo mo and see it stretch so violently that it literaly rips the top seam! Ever wonder why a boxer goes down when hit in the side? Now imagine a bullet near a nerve center INSIDE the body.
    People like Fackler have to see real ‘observable’ damage but cant imagine the common sense effect of that slo mo (look on youtube) impact on the gelatin and that if you looked at it afterwards, you would only see the wound channel (permanent or crush cavity).
    I think people get into problems when they carry rounds that have too little penetration and rely PRIMARILY on kinetic energy. This is where the whole big slow vs small fast came from….and it is STUPID. Get BOTH effects if you can….the most important which is adequate penetration and big cavity, followed by stretch cavity. Of course, you must be able to handle your weapon so it all starts with placement and reasonable followup shots.

    • Medical doctors such as Dr. Gary Roberts (as opposed to amateurs watching slo-mo video on YouTube) have stated “NONE of the common service pistol calibers generate temporary cavities of sufficient magnitude to cause significant tissue damage”. Additional reading can be found in the document “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness”.

      The .357 Mag is no more a “magic bullet” than other handgun rounds, especially when fired from the typical short-barrel concealment piece.

      • Eric, While you are correct that none of these handgun calibers generate stretch cavities of sufficient magnitude to cause significant TISSUE DAMAGE………I was saying that they can and do INCAPACITATE with NO damage.
        See what I am saying. While the tissue stretches and goes back to normal after being shot, the person can be stunned or knocked out for a while and then recover with NO TISSUE DAMAGE. This is very important for you to understand because it is the secret to the 357 and others. You can and do incapacitate without causing tissue damage by stretching a nerve plexus (usually the solar plexus). Now that you know the secret, go tell your friends.

  19. The debate on quick incapacitation and handgun bullets has gone for as long as I have been shooting and hunting – over 40 years. I’ve shot and hunted with just about every common caliber and shotgun shell in those years and have formed an opinion based on my own observations, and by reading formal research on the subject.

    First, I strongly believe that the .45 ACP is an excellent round. It has low recoil and great terminal ballistics. Many years back, while fishing far off the coast of Florida, I shot a 7-foot hammerhead shark from a distance of about 8-feet while my mate held on to the fishing leader. Mind you I had previously seen a .22 long rifle bounce off the head of these critters – they are that tough. I shot the 7-footer about 6-inches behind the gills, center mass with a Winchester Silvertip. Incapacitation was instantaneous. The shark was dead, instantly. So it works and it works very well, but in the example above shot placement was PERFECT.

    Even so, I still subscribe to the high speed / high kinetic energy theory. I did not have a credible technical answer to this belief until very recently, just observations. I theorized that the performance benefits I observed with rifles and higher velocity handgun calibers was in some way related to temporary stretch cavities but had no evidence whatsoever. Then I read this study on pressure waves and incapacitation:

    Controversial? Sure! But, it matches my personal observations. I am now in the process of evaluating the .357 SIG. It looks very promising with velocities in the 1400 fps range.


    • Yes. Organisms have nerve centers and if you put a round into the body with violent force, the pressure wave will knock the critter (two or four legged out for a period of time). If somebody dont get this, offer to punch them in a nerve center and after they have finaly recovered, tell them they should not have been effected because Dr Fackler told you that you had to have a permanent tissue damage to be hurt. The problem people got into was counting on this effect MORE than penetration and a large cavity (which are vital and what you want first before you go into kinetic energy to nerve centers).

    • No doubt about that. They still tell you to aim center mass though as the proper point on the head can be tough to hit at distance. I sure dont want no pill to the dome though.

  20. Never, ever ever give up the fight. It ain’t called gun fight for nothing. Hollywood is full of BS. If you think the bad guy is gonna fall over because he’s been shot, you’re in for a rude awakening. The proper training regimen is shoot untill the threat stops. This means that if you shoot once, miss, but the bad guy rans away, stop shooting (but be prepared for the idiot to change his maind and come back for more). If on the other hand, you shoot and remove half the guys face, yet he keeps coming, then you must shoot again, and again and again if nessicary. Self defense is not a non-thinkers game, and the most survivable fight is one you don’t get into. At the same time, during a shooting, the idea is not how much pain you can inflict, but at what point the fight is over. My wife carries a 38 snubbie and I carry a 45 and both of us know that if the fight don’t stop when the cylinder/mag runs dry, then it’s time to kick ’em in the balls and gouge their eyes out.

    That said, if they’ve come into my home, the handgun is to get me to a rifle or shotgun, if I don’t get to one of those first. As Elmer so eloquently said once, “A handgun is a weapon of opportunity” (paraphrasing mine) meaning that the most useful aspect of a handgun is ready availability, meaning that there are better tools for the job. So, choose something you can carry and control and apply to the emergency at hand easily and quickly. But consider nothing but the south end of the perp headed north or pointing to the sky as the end of the fight.

  21. Does anyone think that there is much difference between any of the commercial defensive ammo on the market? They all will work if well placed.

    • Are you talking about the differences between the different rounds or the variations of bullet weights and velocities within each round by the different companies? My s&w627 8shot 4″ barrel will shoot 38special with 150lbs of energy or less to low 200’s lbs, 38+p to 300lbs, low power 357 magnum in low 400-400lbs, regular 357 magnum, and hot loads up to 700-800 lbs of energy. Bullet weights can go from 110-200 grain hardcast.
      The weight of the bullet and its velocity really change what it is you want to do with the gun (target, HD, Black Bear protection, smaller gun so the need for low recoil load, etc…).

  22. I find unusual the gun community’s general focus on choosing the “right” round for self defense – as if one or another would be demonstrably better than all others. This is abundantly clear from the flame wars in comment sections: “I wouldn’t give two cents for a hollow point! Give me ball ammo! No – you need expansion, not penetration!” In the first case, if you are forced to use a handgun instead of a proper incapacitation weapon, like an RPG, it is impossible to determine the circumstance, barriers, state of mind of the attacker, etc. that will prevail in the fight. I think the first rule is to bring to bear every possible means of deterrence on the attacker, which to me means large quantities of ammunition, fired rapidly and accurately. Second is to account for a variety of circumstance, which to me means that the cylinder or (my preference) magazine should be loaded with a variety of ammunition ranging from deep penetrators to rapid, violent expanders. I think the notion that thoughts about the ammunition you are using, and picking your shots, goes out the window in a firefight – you just fire until empty and then reload. You aren’t trying to group your shots for bragging rights – you are fighting for your life. Yes, going through a wall is an issue – for your widow if your hollow points don’t stop the attacker. So for me, the main value of comparison articles is to provide an overview of the characteristics of not “the best”, but rather the best two, three, or four types to load into your self-defense weapon’s cylinder or magazine so that no matter what the circumstance, you have a better fighting chance of meeting the threat with what is necessary. Multiple times.

  23. If you expect an attacker to stop when you shoot them, you are way behind the curve. It happens, but I would not bet on it. How likely are you to be attacked by a block of gelatin? A .22 LR cal. round in the head will change the thought process if not the motion.


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