Know the Pistol Calibers - NSSF Let's Go Shooting

Know the Pistol Calibers

A rundown of the characteristics of the most popular handgun cartridges

The sheer amount of firearms available to shooters is immense and can be overwhelming. It’s hard, if not downright impossible, to know everything there is to know about all guns. Instead, as you get started with shooting, focus on learning as much as possible about the cartridge characteristics of the gun you select.

In this video, Top Shot Champion Chris Cheng helps beginners understand caliber by providing some basic yet essential information about ammunition and how to properly match ammunition to a firearm.

Handguns are chambered in several different calibers, with some being more popular than others. People base their handgun caliber choice on several factors. Some folks are most concerned with recoil and ease of shooting. Others want the best down-range effectiveness for defensive purposes. Others yet just want it to be fun. Ultimately the choice is yours, but here’s a look at some of the more popular handgun calibers to help you make your decision.

.22 LR — The LR stands for “long rifle,” but this is an extremely small caliber. It’s mainly reserved for target shooting, or “plinking,” since it’s not as powerful as larger calibers. It has very low recoil, so it’s a great caliber to learn on, but it shouldn’t be considered for self-defense.

.380 ACP — This is widely considered the minimum pistol caliber for personal defense. Also known as the “9mm short,” the .380 is very popular in small, subcompact handguns. Although it is light recoiling, the small guns that typically are chambered for this caliber shoot hard because of their size. Shooting the .380 from a larger handgun is very pleasant, and defense ammo has improved greatly making it a viable personal defense round.

9mm — The 9mm is probably the most popular self-defense and general use cartridge for handguns. It has an ample amount of power, though not excessive. It has very manageable recoil in the right gun, ammunition is easy to find, and its size allows handguns chambered in it to hold 15 rounds or more. Many law enforcement and government agencies shoot 9mm.

.45 ACP — This is a tried-and-true cartridge for self-defense. The .45 is a big, heavy, and relatively slow bullet with a lot of punch. The .45 is most popular in a 1911-type pistol, which typically has a single-stack magazine, meaning the rounds sit one atop the next. Because of this, a typical 1911 in .45 ACP will hold only eight rounds, though double-stack versions are available. It has a significant amount of recoil, and may not be the best choice for smaller shooters or ones with a weaker grip. Due to its popularity, ammo is easy to find.

.357 Magnum — The .357 Magnum is a revolver round that packs a hard punch. You can get guns of all sizes in this caliber but be warned: Smaller revolvers can sting your hands due to the ferocity of this cartridge. It’s a serious defense and even hunting cartridge in larger guns, but is not the best choice for general shooting.

.38 Special — Here’s a soft-shooting revolver cartridge that is relatively inexpensive and easy to find. You can shoot .38 Special in the same revolver as you would a .357 Magnum, but with far less recoil, noise, and flash. If you want to shoot a revolver for the fun of it, this is a good caliber.

.40 S&W — The .40 S&W was very popular years ago, particularly with law enforcement, because it represented middle ground between the 9mm and .45 ACP. It’s now losing popularity because of its harsh and “snappy” nature. The .40 S&W is hard on handguns as well as shooters. It is an effective self-defense round, but doesn’t do anything that modern 9mm or .45 rounds can’t do. It’s also expensive for what it is.


About the Author
Sean Utley is an accomplished writer and photographer covering firearms and the shooting sports. His work regularly appears on the covers and within the pages of the nation’s top firearms-related publications. Sean is an avid shooter with a penchant for long-range shooting and precision rifles.