There’s a tendency among gun owners to follow whatever law enforcement does when it comes to selecting a firearm for defense. When the police carried revolvers, many civilians had a revolver (yes, that’s mostly what was available at the time). When police departments switched to semi-auto pistols, the civilian world largely followed over time (with a few really obsessive holdouts, like these guys). We can see a similar thing with shotguns gradually falling out of favor for home defense in favor of the AR-15 in recent years
Calibers are the same way. Many people carried .357 Magnum or .38 Special when the police did. Later, 9mm was the thing, followed by .40 S&W when it became a popular law enforcement round. Now that the FBI and many state and local cop shops have moved back to 9mm, the civilian CCW market is following (resulting in some sweet deals on lightly used police guns if you’re still into .40).
There are some obvious drawbacks to the approach of following cops around. One’s defensive needs will obviously differ from that of someone who’s job entails being out and looking for trouble.
The 9mm caliber may be too much for some shooters (especially in micro compact pistols). I have a relative with a serious wrist condition who loves to carry and shoot .380, and no amount of “But the cops carry 9mm!” is going to undo the cumulative effect of several injuries and surgeries.
I know that 9mm fanatics and advocates understand that there are unusual circumstances, like someone who can’t handle 9mm, or someone who lives in the woods and needs to defend against bears. I’m not going to raise a straw man here.
Absent unusual circumstances, they’re still arguing that 9mm is the superior choice for most urban and suburban defensive needs (“nine in the hoods, ten in the woods”). Not only are the cops carrying that now, but gel tests show little advantage to .40 S&W or .45 ACP these days, while the disadvantages of those larger bore calibers (recoil and capacity) are still present.
So you’re probably a “boomer” if you carry “.45 AARP” or you’re a 90’s kid if you’re packing something chambered for .40 S&W or .357 SIG. It’s time to live in 2022 and carry Parabellum.
But, as a writer, it’s never interesting to feed the sacred cows. Plus, we need people to question those dogmas to keep ourselves from falling into a rut or making bad decisions. So, I’m going to present some alternative data and ideas on the idea that 9mm is a good “one size fits most” round. I’m not going to argue that 9mm isn’t a great choice for many shooters (it obviously is), but I am going to argue that we shouldn’t discourage people from looking at other calibers and making different choices.
Does Less Recoil Mean Better Shot Placement?
The central argument behind choosing 9mm over larger and more powerful defensive handgun rounds is that shot placement is key. The biggest, most powerful round that doesn’t hit anything vital (or doesn’t hit anything at all) doesn’t do you much good in a fight. Lower recoil rounds are a lot easier to shoot with greater accuracy and speed on the range, so it makes a lot of sense to use what works best, especially with advances in ballistics that make for some very effective lower-recoiling ammo choices.
But, this isn’t the whole truth.
First off, the range isn’t a great analog for a real defensive encounter. Adrenaline levels, the need to move to avoid danger, and the complexity of the environment all make for far less accurate shooting when you’re being attacked than we see on the range.
That doesn’t mean we can skip range practice (because you don’t want to start out inaccurate and then get worse under stress), but it does mean that the accurate shot placement you got on paper or steel is going will be harder to repeat on the street.
A 2018 study bears this out. The sad fact is that there’s no correlation between caliber and shot placement away from the shooting range or plinking in the desert or woods. Or, as the study of hundreds of shooting says, “Firearm caliber had no systematic association with the number of wounds, the location of wounds, circumstances of the assault, or victim characteristics.”
I know that a study of shootings, including criminal activity, defensive gun use, and professional law enforcement shootings leaves some room for argument (pretty much everything involving caliber comparisons does).
If we’re going to include gang bangers who don’t bother with sights, a good guy spending time on the range and getting professional instruction should get better results, right? But, if that were the case, there’d be at least some statistical clustering in the data caused by police, who get, er, “professional” training.
When You Don’t Score That Perfect Hit
Another key finding in the study isn’t great for the 9mm “one size” theory. While shot placement isn’t better in the real world for lower-recoil rounds, the real world end results of 9mm tend to be inferior to more powerful choices. While the study could only focus on lethality (investigations only look at things after the fact), greater lethality should correlate well with ability to incapacitate.
As you’d expect, rounds like .38 Special, 9mm, and .380 ACP are vastly superior to rounds like .22 (short or long), .25 Auto, and .32 ACP. The study shows lethality is 2.25 times greater. But, more powerful rounds, like .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and 10mm are even better, with more than double the chances of lethality compared to the 9mm and .380.
We can probably argue all day about why real-world shootings with higher calibers are far more deadly on average (BIGGER HOLES!), but I think this article at American Handgunner sums up a great possibility.
When you can score a perfect hit, the chances of even .25 Auto are probably about as good as a rifle round. A perfect hit to the CNS is a perfect hit to the CNS. But, when you can’t hit the proverbial X-ring, having those imperfect shots count for a little more seems to make a lot of difference in the real world.
After all, the improvements in bullet technology that made the 9mm more effective have also made .40 S&W, .45 ACP, 10mm more effective, too.
The Complex Truth: There Is No ‘Perfect’ Defensive Caliber For Everybody (or Maybe Anyone)
Given this data and my experience in both law enforcement and as an instructor, I’d argue that the better results in police qualifiers with 9mm isn’t due to an inherent advantage of the caliber. The sad truth is that the average cop doesn’t have nearly as much training as people think. There are many, many officers who barely pass, and their shooting fundamentals aren’t very solid.
Recoil doesn’t create problems with shooting. It only amplifies them. If you suck and can barely pass an easy shooting test with 9mm, you can’t blame recoil from .40 S&W or .45 ACP ammo for your problems. In most cases, it’s probably that you need better fundamentals — better grip, better stance, and better trigger control — assuming you’re not a five-foot-nothing 98-pounder or don’t have problems with age or disability, of course.
Like clothing, vehicles, and just about anything else in life, you have to go with what fits the situation. The truth is that you should probably choose the most powerful caliber you can shoot well that also fits your defensive and carry/concealment needs.
That can and sometimes does change over time as you gain skill or lose ability with age. It could also vary depending on what situations you’re carrying into on particular day. So in the end, even an individual may not be able to settle on just one caliber that works for them in all situations.