Buying a handgun, like buying a car or a computer, means that you’re going to feel like you’re being hit with a wall of specifications. While specifics on barrel rifling and length of twist are all important to competition shooters and professional marksmen, first time gun buyers need to worry about comparatively little. However, everyone needs to know their ammunition caliber, or the size of bullets their handgun can shoot. Aside from the obvious reason that bigger bullets won’t fit inside smaller gun barrels, different calibers of ammunition are better suited to certain tasks; a good home defense round may be too much for a novice shooter or too little for a hunting handgun caliber.
Pros and Cons of the Most Common Calibers
While there are a ton of different calibers for handguns, both current and antique, there are comparatively fewer that you will ever actually use. Below, we’ve put together a list of the most common calibers, their pros and cons, and a few popular handguns that use them.
The .22 Long Rifle caliber is easily the most popular round on the market today, and the smallest popular round you can buy. About as large as a bean and available for pistols, revolvers and rifles, the .22 LR is exceedingly common, cheap as dirt and, with the right brand of ammunition, an incredibly accurate little round. It’s lack of recoil also makes it a great round to learn to shoot with, a great way to learn good shooting form without the recoil and noise of larger caliber rounds.
As a hunting round, the .22 LR works well against varmints, and the low weight of individual bullets means you can carry an incredible amount without any problems.
The only real downside to the .22 LR is physics; because there’s not a lot of weight to these bullets, they don’t pack the same kind of punch as larger rounds. The smaller bullets mean you would have to put more shots on target in a self-defense situation. Still, because these rounds are easy to control, a .22 LR handgun really can be an effective tool for personal protection.
Popular handguns for the .22 LR: Walther P22, Browning Buck Mark, Ruger LCR-22
When you think “revolver”, the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum are probably the bullets you’re thinking of. Nearly a century old and incredibly popular, the .38 Special is the iconic caliber for police revolvers, and a good and powerful round for personal defense.
For a little added power, you can use the .357 magnum cartridges instead. With the same diameter as its .38 Special counterpart, the .357 Magnum round packs more gunpowder into a longer round, giving it much more stopping power (and recoil). Additionally, the .357 and the .38 can be used interchangeably on any .357 revolver; the inverse, however, is NOT true.
All the best parts of the .38 and the .357 rounds are echoed in their revolvers; they’re easy to manage, easy to use, versatile enough to both hunt and target-shoot, and common enough that you’ll always be able to find a few boxes of each. Whether you’re buying a snub-nosed revolver for personal protection or a full-size for hunting and target practice, the .357 and .38 Special rounds will definitely have your back.
An incredibly light round with good stopping power and very little recoil, the .380 ACP, while slightly less common than other rounds, has much more going for it than you’d expect.
Essentially a shorter 9mm cartridge, the .380 is a perennial favorite in concealed-carry handguns and backup pieces, due to the fact that the round and the handgun are usually incredibly light, fit in slim single-stack magazines and, because they carry much less recoil than larger calibers, are very easy to put and keep on target.
While it has been argued that the .380 ACP is less powerful than other handgun calibers, the lack of heavy recoil means that, even in high-pressure self-defense situations, you won’t have any trouble putting rounds on target. After all, the three .380’s that do hit your target are worth infinitely more than the thirty .44 “Dirty Harry” rounds that don’t. In addition, you can always opt for hollow-point rounds to bump up your stopping power and ensure that there’s no over-penetration. With a hundred years worth of development and a clearly defined role, the .380 does what it sets out to do, and does it incredibly well. Best .380 Handguns: Walther PPK
If you’re the kind of person who wants to use what the professionals use, then an overwhelming number of police, military, and target shooters will all tell you the same thing; use a 9mm handgun.
Available in handguns of all sizes, as well as submachine guns and carbines, the 9mm round is easily the most common handgun round you can find for personal defense and target shooting. Naturally, because it is larger than the .22 LR and the .380 ACP, while also having a higher muzzle velocity than the .38 Special, the 9mm can put a lot of force downrange, yet still be easy to control.
Because the 9mm is the standard NATO handgun round, 9mm rounds are available at pretty much every sporting goods store and every military surplus store in the country, often from multiple manufacturers and in multiple variations. In addition, all the major handgun brands in NATO countries (and even a few former Eastern Bloc nations) all produce a handful of great 9mm handguns, so finding quality isn’t nearly as difficult. With just the right balance of affordability and power, the 9mm makes for an incredibly reliable personal defense tool. Best 9mm Handguns: Glock 17
The Coke to the 9mm’s Pepsi, the .45 ACP is a truly American innovation. A military standard designed by John Browning himself for the iconic M1911, the .45 round has enjoyed common military use for the better part of a century, and the stopping power of this heavy cartridge is one of the biggest reasons. Even regular .45 ACP rounds are more than sufficient for self defense, and also make a suitable caliber for a hunting sidearm.
In terms of actual stopping power, the .45 ACP is easily the hardest hitting caliber for a semiautomatic pistol on the market, beating out everything except the eclectic and oversized .50 AE. It’s common, it’s powerful, and it’s represented in some of the best handguns on the American market.
Unfortunately, the increased power of the round isn’t without its drawbacks. With high recoil and smaller magazine capacities, .45 ACP handguns can be difficult to control as concealed carry tools of self-defense. As full-size or compact handguns, however, their punching power is unrivaled, and rounds are more than common enough for you to learn the ins and outs of this incredibly powerful round. Best .45 ACP handguns: Colt M1911.
Of course, there are different variations on ammunition, each designed to fill a different niche than their standard FMJ (Full Metal Jacket) rounds. You can use these special ammo types in their respective handguns to give you an edge in self-defense or target shooting.
Jacketed Hollow Points (JHP)
Different from their standard FMJ cousins, JHP rounds are bullets with a large hole in the center. Unlike regular ammunition that goes straight through the target, the hollow point on JHP rounds actually expands outward when it strikes a surface, slowing the bullet down and causing more damage. Not only do bullets like this give smaller calibers the stopping power of larger ones, but by expanding inside the target, they greatly reduce the risk of bullets passing straight through targets and striking something behind them (overpenetration).
Overpressure Rounds (+P)
Overpressure rounds are simply regular FMJ rounds with more gunpowder than the standard loadout, giving your bullet a much faster muzzle velocity and thus, a stronger knockdown power. As such, these bullets are much harder on your gun’s internal parts, and the extra gunpowder makes cheaply made overpressure rounds unsafe. Use these rounds sparingly and buy them from a reputable manufacturer.
Match Grade Ammo
While “Match Grade” isn’t a unified qualification like the previous ammo types, ammo that is considered match grade is usually precisely milled to be incredibly accurate and consistent. Whether you use this ammo with a customized handgun or not, you can expect more reliable accuracy with match grade bullets, especially at longer ranges. However, match grade ammunition is usually more costly, so plan accordingly.
A load designed to be safe, frangible ammo replaces the solid bullet inside your handgun with heavily compressed copper powder that essentially disintegrates on impact. This sort of design prevents ricochets, especially when training for close-quarters shooting at steel targets. In addition, these bullets have significantly less lead in them, which is helpful for indoor ranges (that need to filter out lead dust less) and outdoor ranges (where lead can seep into the environment).