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Which Caliber is Right for You?

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By Gary Paul Johnston

In the last column we looked at some of issues with duty pistols; now we’re going to look at ammunition. OK, I can hear you…”Oh, no, not this argument again!” Don’t worry, we won’t argue. Well, you may, but listen up. First, a lot of good folks, including cops, have grown up and are carrying pistols (or have bought one for protection) since the last time this was hashed over. Just as important is that some things have changed right under our noses, so we need to look and see if we’re still talking that 1970s stuff.

Street Ballistics
If you’re a law enforcement officer with lots of years on the street, let’s see what your experience has told you. Here’s what mine told me. Of all the people I’ve seen shot, or I have known of being shot, there were as many shot with a .22 Long Rifle cartridge as with any other single caliber. What’s more, of those shot with the .22 (or even .25 ACP), at least as many or more either died immediately or were put out of the fight right away – more than from any other single caliber! Whether or not your experience has been similar, do you know why these small projectiles have proven so effective? It’s because they often don’t go straight in and stop like heavier handgun bullets, but instead ricochet all around.

Would I carry a .22 handgun for personal protection? I have, but I won’t elaborate how or under what circumstances. Would I recommend this caliber for home defense? If the person I was instructing simply couldn’t handle or afford anything else, you bet! Would an intruder be able to tell if he or she had been shot with a .22, or if the victim missed, what caliber the shot was? I think not.

Discussing the .22 was simply a place to begin. Of the various calibers I’ve seen used in shootings, my impressions are that .32, .380 FMJ, 9x19mm FMJ and .38 Special RNL were the least effective (I especially have experience with the latter). Not that I have not seen people die from being shot with these calibers, but it’s stopping power we’re most concerned with. However, not only did I retire 19 years ago, but also some meaningful changes occurred shortly before then and have continued.

The .40 Smith & Wesson
It was about that time that centerfire handgun bullet technology took a quantum leap, especially in the big three including the 9x19mm, 45 ACP. Uh, that’s only two. Roger that, and it was the third caliber that threw a monkey wrench into the opinion poll of handgun effectiveness. That caliber was the .40 Smith & Wesson. A shortened version of the suddenly out of vogue 10x21mm cartridge, the .40 S&W was seen as a bridge between the 9mm and the .45.

What about the .38 Super? It’s a great cartridge, and even better is the .38 TJ (not commercially loaded) designed by competitive shooter, Todd Jerret, which has a superior case and can be fired in any .38 Super pistol. However, because of its longer case, we’re back to .45 ACP length with the small hand syndrome. There’s also a new improved 9x19mm round called the .355 Super, but it’s not yet commercially loaded either, so let’s get back to the .40 S&W.

You see, the .40 S&W was introduced with the new bullet technology and not before it, so this round got off to the best of starts. For the .45 ACP, with a typical BIG bullet track record, the improved bullet performance amounted to frosting on an already great cake. But what about the 9x19mm? It had not only suffered from extensive fight stopping failures using full metal jacket (FMJ) bullets for virtually all of its life, but it had continued to suffer using the early, failed attempts to provide it with effective expanding bullets, especially concerning the Illinois State Police (ISP) experiences of the 1970s.

Since hollow point bullets were forbidden by the ISP (administrative insanity), a search was begun for other types of expanding bullets, to include a FMJ bullet with a paper-thin jacket. It didn’t work and neither did the soft-nose jacketed bullets they tested.

Back then I found it next to impossible to get most 9mm expanding bullets to perform in tests. One exception was the Smith & Wesson 124-grain Nyclad JHP, which my agency issued until we changed to .45 ACP duty pistols in 1986. However, even better expanding bullets began to emerge in the early 1990s. These included the Winchester Black Talon, Remington Golden Sabre, Federal Hydra-Shok, Speer Gold Dot, Hornady XTP and others. This quantum leap of this technology has continued with Barnes Bullets, COR-BON, Federal Personal Protection, Hornady TAP, Winchester Bonded PXD1 and more.

In a handgun (notwithstanding number of shots fired or shot placement), in addition to velocity, a bullet’s terminal ballistic performance depends on bullet material and design. Of the three, velocity is (in my opinion) the least important. Sure, you have to drive a bullet fast enough to perform, but a fast bullet of improper material and design will not give optimum performance in a handgun no matter how fast you drive it. This is because at least in a duty or personal protection handgun, you simply cannot make the bullet perform anywhere close to a bullet from a rifle! However, optimum bullet material and design can solve the problem at standard velocity. Here’s a true story.

The +P Hype
About 20 years, while attending a writer’s conference at Thunder Ranch, a major U.S. ammunition company was testing some experimental handgun ammunition in 10 percent gelatin. The ammo was in plain company boxes with no printed caliber info, but it was 9mm +P and was being tested alongside the same bullet loaded to standard velocity. To my surprise, the standard velocity 9mm penetrated about 11 inches with about 55–60 caliber expansion, while in the experimental +P load penetrated only about 7 inches with even more impressive expansion, but shed its jacket.

While I was looking at the results, one of the company engineers commented to the other that they would have to redesign the bullet get sufficient penetration at +P velocity. When I asked what he meant, he said that bullets designed to perform at standard velocity usually come apart at +P velocity, because the jackets are too thin, causing them to blow up on hitting the gelatin. When I asked him why bother to load +P ammunition, he said they had to, because of “you guys writing about it all the time.”

That was an eye-opener. These extra hot loads are, in my opinion, even more questionable in cartridges like the .38 Super, .40 S&W and .357 SIG, at least in some handguns. This is because cartridges with a high pounds per square inch (PSI) are particularly sensitive at the unsupported web area just in front of the rim, and this is especially true in pistols that can fire when the slide is not fully locked in battery!

Some handgun manufacturers have and still do warn against using +P ammunition in their handguns, even warning that doing so will void all warranties. Putting extra stress (or worse) on your pistol is bad enough, but assuming the gun will hold up, here is what should concern you about +P ammunition in a gunfight. Such extra hot loads can create additional muzzle flash, will create additional muzzle blast and will create extra recoil! Are you with me so far?

Now then, in a gunfight, extra recoil will diminish most people’s ability to make fast, accurate multiple hits, and when fighting with any handgun, fast, accurate multiple hits are what will increase your chances to WIN! Anyone who happens to make an instant stop with a single shot of any caliber should thank someone bigger than he or she.

The majority of people can operate most 9x19mm pistols without difficulty, because of hand size and recoil. Somewhat fewer can handle a .45 ACP caliber pistol, mainly because of hand size, as there are .45 ACP bullet designs that perform very well with less recoil, such as Federal Personal Protection ammunition. However, to reach a happy medium, many have chosen a pistol in .40 S&W, as it is the same size as the same make in 9mm, but is chambered for a larger bullet that has performance closer to that of a .45 ACP. Still, a good amount of such test data concerns FMJ bullets, where the .45 ACP and .40 S&W certainly win by “brute force” alone. Nevertheless, while the .40 does combine some of the good attributes of .45, it also brings some of the higher pressure of the 9mm mentioned above. Here’s what I believe.

Thirty years ago I used a totally unscientific chart to demonstrate the difference in performance between the 9x19m and the .45 ACP (the .40 S&W did not yet exist). I felt that if the .45 ACP was up next to 100 percent, then the 9mm was down around 70 percent. With the current expanding bullet technology (and the inclusion of the .40 S&W), I still feel that the .45 ACP can do almost anything better than either the .40 S&W or the 9mm, but I believe that the three are much closer together on the percentage scale, all else being equal.

Of course, I believe that most other centerfire handgun ammunition has taken advantage of the current bullet technology to perform far better than it could have years ago. Examples include .357 SIG, .32 H&R Magnum and .327 Federal magnum, which are relatively new on the scene. You may not agree and that’s fine, but either way you should do some research on your own. In the meantime, if some self-styled “expert” tries to tell you about all the shortcomings of anything smaller than .45 caliber, take it with a grain of salt and keep practicing. To keep your defensive pistol, JOIN the NRA…Do it NOW!