Monday, March 19, 2007


New shooters often ask which handgun and/or caliber is "best" for self-defense. It's inevitable that they'll get as many answers as there are handguns and calibers.

Some people mention their own gun as the best... whether it's a Glock, a 1911, an XD, or a revolver.

In answering the caliber question, one popular answer is "anything that begins with .4". Another is "a 9mm may expand, but a .45 will never shrink".

The answer we should always begin with is "The best firearm for you is one that is reliable, feels comfortable, and that you can afford." The best caliber is "the one you can can shoot with consistent control, and afford to practice with." Once we've established these two points as key, then we can begin to move into other areas of manufacturer, type of action, and the size of the bullet.

Some shooters are partial to revolvers, and for good reason: generally speaking, they are the most reliable and the easiest to operate. A good revolver can also be more accurate than some semi-autos, given that the barrel is connected directly to the frame; there's no "play" between the two pieces to affect accuracy.

Other shooters prefer the semi-auto, and within that camp there are various sub-camps that will declare the 1911 to be the only pistol worth shooting, or that the 1911 is a old-timer's gun which (while a notable firearm) has been far eclipsed by polymer guns in terms of reliability, ease-of-maintenance, and cost.

No one can really decide for someone else which gun is best for that shooter... all we can offer is advice and feedback on what our own experience has been. The advice I always give someone is to shoot various guns, and determine which one feels the best in their own hand.

Caliber is yet another choice to be made, especially if your chosen gun is available in multiple calibers. While the shooting community generally agrees that anything less than a .38 isn't a good defense round, we tend to endlessly debate the best higher-end choice. Some won't carry less than a .45, while others feel the 9mm is a proven round. Some shooters have decided to follow the lead of law enforcement and carry the relatively new .40.

While reading posts in the countless gun forums out there, I've often read the story of the Miami Bank Robbery incident. It was this incident which prompted LE to find a replacement for the 9mm round, due to the poor performance of the round in this incident. Shooters who malign the 9mm in favor of larger rounds often mention this case as "proof" that the 9mm lacks power and penetration.

Until recently, I'd found the story mildly interesting... although it didn't affect my choice in carrying a 9mm. But yesterday I came upon a link which shed some new light on the subject. Especially interesting was this diagram, which shows how the 9mm failed to stop the assailant.

Here's the part I find especially notable: the "failed shot" entered the man's arm, went through it, entered the right side of the torso, went through the ribs, and then stopped just short of the heart.

Now in terms of failing to hit the heart (and kill the man) - yes, the 9mm round did fail. But I want to point out two things. First, the round itself was 115 gr. That's rather small compared to what is currently available in 9mm... both 125 gr and 147 gr are popular choices. Secondly, while the round did fail to penetrate the heart - it penetrated his arm, back out again, and then went through the ribs! While I'm not a pathologist nor a ballistics expert, my opinion is that if the round had begun it's fateful journey from the front of the chest - we might not be having this conversation.

Details of the entire incident are available here, so there's no need in restating the whole matter. But to sum up: shot placement by the LEO's was fairly non-existent due to many factors. The shot that "failed" certainly had a lot of penetration - just not enough in this circumstance. And finally, the round itself was a very light 115 grains. Might a 147 gr might have reached the heart...? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it's worth considering.

Gun owners should base their decisions on many factors, and the story above is indeed a factor to consider. But it's not the end of the story. Countless people have been stopped with every caliber from .38 special to .44 magnum... and while this one incident did change the climate in law enforcement, it is not a universal verdict on the lethality of the 9mm cartridge.


Unknown said...

Intresting read. Far from being an answer any noob would want, but probably the closest to the truth if there is a definitive one.

Xavier said...

Very well said, Sir.

Dustin said...

I am no balistics expert, nor do I have that kind of equipment, but I do have bowling pins, and I do have 9mm 115 grain, and 147 grain. Time to do my own experiment.

Anonymous said...

Mac very interesting I'm british and tend to go with the pros universally known as SAS They fire 9mm smgs and sig 9s. Comfort with any pistol is paramount. Firing a 10mm and fearful of recoil, just throw the pistol. Stopping power is in shot placement and shot placement is in comfort with the gun, and caliber. Shooting ranges with a variety of calibers is the place to start. Find the caliber with which you are comfortable firing then select pistol that feels good. (THEN PRACTICE)

Anonymous said...

I own several pistols, both revolvers and semis, and I've been shooting and hunting for about 30 years. Having said that, I do believe that you struck the old nail directly on the head. Well said Sir.

Anonymous said...

The true answer is that stopping power in handguns are a myth!!! They simply just don't have the force; and yes, this includes the .45.

The only way to put down someone with a handgun is to hit the following targets:

1. The cranio-ocular cavity (about the size of a business card). This is the area on the head between the eyebrow line and the mustache line (Right between the eyes).
2. The Cervical Spine. From the base of the brain to the top of the collar bone (In the area of the Throat.)

Any other hit with any type of handgun caliber and a determined bad guy can keep going. Also, even with a direct hit to the heart, the bad guy has another 10 to 15 seconds of oxygen in his blood to fire back.

So when it comes to handguns, cartridges are much more similar than different in that shot placement is the key.

Anonymous said...

well i kinda agree with the post above, and i kinda dont, you see, basically any type of headshot, if the bullet goes in, your as good as dead, even if your not dead, the force of impact would cuase a head trauma, as well and severe damage to various parts of your brain, plus you would probably fall unconcious with the pain.

also the caliber does matter and isnt a myth, take it like this, if you shoot someone in the chest with a .38 and with a .45 the .45 will always do more damage( duh) becuase its larger, makes a larger hole, and its more likely to stay in the body since it will mushroom (unless its a peircing round) in which case, the bigger the hole, the better.

and if someone gets shot in the heart, they would NOT have 10-15 seconds left, dude to that fact, that with al;l the adrenaline pumping through you (becuase your in a gun fight) then your heart would beat more rapidly and once it stops, then your oxygen level would be cut short very quickly, id give that man 1-3 seconds AT MOST.

Anonymous said...

Good post, right answer. Someone with the wrong tool in their hand, for whatever reason, could very well be a hazard to themselves and their loved ones.

Cavedweller said...

This is an old thread but I just had to add to the failure stories. During the Korean war a North Korean soldier was shot 13 times with a 1911 45ACP before it stopped his advancement. A police officer in a shoot-out in a parking lot shot the robber 22 times with a .40S&W glock and the robber got in the car and tried to drive off with 21 hits.the officer shot him in the back of the head through the back window with the 22nd hit that stopped him and he still lived for another 5 minutes or so. A success story with a 9mm is an officer put down a man spraying bullets with an AK47 with his berretta 92 at 75 yds with his 2nd shot. With any handgun, shot placement is the key. If you can tack drive with a 9mm but can't hit the side of a barn with a 45 then 9mm is your better choice. If you can shoot well with a 45 then 45 is your choice. Whatever you can afford to practice with to keep proficient with will most likely be your better choice. For laughs .... the fairly new AR15 in 300AACblk caliber ( a .308 converged with the 5.56 case) would be better than any of them...LOL