Figure 1

Which Round For Self-Defense?


Self-defense rounds compared. From L to R; .380 ACP, 9 mm Luger, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 Colt


When we consider the choice of caliber for our concealed carry gun, we often stick to the well-known choices: .380, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9 mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. All of these rounds have their pros and cons, and you will find people who will swear by one or the other. The .380 gives you a wide choice of extremely concealable auto-loaders with all different systems of operation. The .38 Special is the round of choice in the ever-popular S&W J-frame snub nose revolver, which has proven itself time and time again as both a primary sidearm and a backup or deep concealment piece. A .357 needs to be somewhat heavier if the user is to avoid punishing recoil. The 9 mm appeals to those who like lots of rounds on tap in a compact pistol. With the latest in high-performance projectiles, there are those who claim that performance is just as good as the old reliable .45 ACP, the battle-proven veteran for those who believe that bigger is better. The .40 S&W gives a good-sized big bore combined with the high round count of the 9 mm in an auto-loader. Those who favor revolvers are definitely in the minority, but those who do tend to like the well-proven .357 Magnum, which in most ballistic tests is neck-and-neck with the .45 ACP. Today we’ll take a look at this choice that every concealed carrier has to make. We are not going to rehash the interminable debate of 9 mm vs. .45 ACP except for pointing out some recent developments. We’ll also point out some less common but excellent choices such as the .44 Special, which has a small, but very loyal following. Let’s get started.

First off, I am not going to discuss such rounds as the .22 LR, .25 ACP, .30 Luger, .32 ACP, or 9 mm Makarov (9 x 18). These all have their place, and there are people who use them. It is fair to say, however, that none of them are really “mainstream” in the vast majority of handguns sold for defensive purposes. The same goes for the .44 Magnum, .454 Casull, .50 Action Express and the .500 S&W. These big bores are more suited to hunting purposes, or for a back-up gun used for protection against bears while fishing in Alaska. Although there are some folks who successfully conceal a .44 Magnum, the round is literally “overkill” for defense against human assailants and the recoil in a lightweight gun is punishing. I will confess that I own a 3″ S&W Model 29 which I carry from time to time. On those occasions, I load it with .44 Specials.

Further, I am not going to presume to tell anyone which round they should choose. The choice of a concealed carry gun is a very personal thing. You should use what works for you. I will, however, try to point out some of trade-offs you must expect to make between concealability, power, recoil, training, etc. Hopefully, this information will help each of you make your own choice.

Consider Both Ends of the Gun

In choosing a self-defense round, we need to consider two effects. One is the effect that the projectile will have upon the target. In a defensive situation, your objective is to put an end to the threat as quickly as possible. That means that a single hit (or multiple hits) should be able to stop the hostile action of a human target. Shot placement is critical. A hit to the central nervous system with a .22 LR or a .380 will have the desired result most of the time. Nothing is certain. Since we cannot always place the first round exactly where we want it, especially when under severe stress, the effects of fear, and perhaps injury, more power is a good thing. More power (greater bullet diameter, higher velocity, more bullet weight, more expansion) will mean more damage to the target, but these factors also take their toll on the shooter in terms of recoil. Less recoil means faster follow-up shots. You can decrease the recoil of your firearm by using a lighter bullet, lesser velocity, or a heavier gun. A heavier gun is either harder to conceal or less convenient to carry. You get the idea.

Every choice is a compromise. The one item over which you have direct control is your level of skill. Skill is increased by training and practice. I have seen large men who flinch when firing a .380. By the same token, there are some well-trained, petite women who fire .45 ACP +P rounds with speed and accuracy. Without training and practice, your firearm is useless. With the proper training and sufficient practice, you can become an expert shot with the firearm and round of your choice.


Before commenting on the pros and cons of individual rounds, I will present a table which lists typical ammunition in the various common defensive calibers. No specific brands are mentioned, but bullet weight, bullet type and typical muzzle velocity are given. There are two columns which contain information important to you. They are “Muzzle Energy” and “Power Factor.” Muzzle energy is the kinetic energy of the projectile at the muzzle (typically measured 10 to 15 feet away). The kinetic energy of the projectile is transferred to the target. The more energy transferred, the more damage done. Of course, shot placement is the most important thing, but everything else being equal, the more energy on target, the better. Power Factor is the product of the bullet weight in grains multiplied by the muzzle velocity in feet per second. In certain types of competition (ISPC, IPDA) the power factor is used to distinguish between a “Major” and “Minor” caliber, with Major being any load with a Power Factor greater than 175,000. The power factor is another way to state the momentum of the projectile, or mass x velocity. Bullet momentum is directly related to recoil in that when the round is fired, equal momentum is imparted to both the bullet and the firearm, but in opposite directions. The shooter absorbs the momentum of the firearm as recoil, while the projectile transfers its momentum to the target. In a nutshell, the greater the power factor, the greater the recoil. By examining the table, you can see that there are trade-offs. That lightweight, soft recoiling .380 is not going to have the punch of a 9 mm, .357, .40 S&W or .45. You are going to have to shoot very accurately under stressful conditions if you choose a .380. Central nervous system hits will do the job, but they are difficult to make. The heavier calibers a little more forgiving. A solid hit, center of mass, will tend to discourage your opponent. The choice is yours. Above all, you must be able to hit your target with the first round and with subsequent rounds if necessary.


(To download a PDF of the table below, Click Here)


Old is Not Necessarily Obsolete

Check out the numbers for the .44 Special and the .45 Colt if you prefer a revolver. Both are solid choices. If you have a short-barrel .44 Magnum, the .44 Special will have manageable recoil and still have plenty of power to get the job done. The .45 Colt (sometimes called “Long Colt”) has been around since 1873. It was a potent man-stopper back then, when loaded with black powder. With today’s modern bullets, it is a powerful round with reasonable recoil.

Figure 2

Two heavy hitters. A Smith & Wesson 4″ Mountain Gun in .45 Colt and a 3″ S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum. When loaded with .44 Specials, it is easy to shoot and a great carry gun.

A Final Word On Bullets

Bullet design has made tremendous strides in the past 15 to 20 years. Modern, high-performance projectiles will expand reliably at the comparatively low velocities produced by handguns. Whichever round you choose for your self-defense firearm, use high-performance ammunition with premium projectiles. There are many versions of the jacketed hollow point available today. If you use an auto-loader, maker sure your carry gun functions reliably with your choice of ammunition. Fire at least 200 rounds of your carry ammunition through your gun. If you experience zero malfunctions, the ammo is OK to carry.

In summary, there is no one best choice for a self-defense round. It depends on your shooting ability, the weight of your firearm, and your tolerance for recoil. The choice is yours. Stay safe.

Categories: Beginners Guide, General
About Greg | View all posts by Greg

Constantine is a semi-retired business owner and consultant who lives in the Northeast US. He is an NRA Endowment Life Member and an NRA Certified Instructor. He enjoys all shooting…

Constantine is a semi-retired business owner and consultant who lives in the Northeast US. He is an NRA Endowment Life Member and an NRA Certified Instructor. He enjoys all shooting sports as well as big-game hunting. Licensed to carry in over 30 states, he has carried daily for over 20 years and has instructed many novice shooters in firearm safety and basic shooting skills. His EDC (most of the time) is a Rock River Arms custom 1911 loaded with Federal 230 gr. HydraShok JHP. This is carried in a Mitch Rosen USD II Slimline IWB holster on a Mitch Rosen belt. A Chris Reeve Sebenza 25 and a SureFire LED flashlight round out the system.

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  • Ken Sasman

    I took a CCP course. I had already purchased my weapon of choice – a Ruger LCR .357. Reasons for choice were reliability and power. I don’t have to worry about ‘auto’ problems – stove piping, failure to fire or eject. If I have a misfire I simply have to keep pulling the trigger. Yes, the LCR in .357 has considerable recoil, But I was always told to make the first shot count. If I do that, my threat is eliminated. My trainer said to practice on a 9-12 inch paper plate. NOT good enough if you’re going for head shots. So I practice on 4-6 inch small pie plates. The idea of number of rounds doesn’t worry me – I carry 2 speed loaders. So I have a total of 15 rounds available at all times. On the debate of concealed vs. open carry – definitely concealed. Don’t give the agressors the knowledge of who to shoot first with open-carry. Again, ONLY in self defense or defense of others!

    • Brian Honeycutt

      Ken you might want to retract this statement. Reason; in most states the law says we can shoot to stop the threat, I am not sure about your state but even if it does not, this statement alone may make you open for lawsuits if someone reads it and you do have to shoot someone. Second Shooting for the center of the largest exposed mass is always best with the first shot. remember your heart is pounding your hands are sweaty the largest target is your best bet. When the shit hits the fan we will fall back to the greatest skill we have mastered and if we practice head shots then when all goes wrong we will try to take a shot that we may not be able to hit. Just a few thoughts

      • ValleyCounty

        Brian, you need to consult with a legal beagle, before you chastise anyone by making the statment you made. The accepted terminology in most courts of law is just that. We were taught in the acadamy(2 different state acadamies) that you neutralized or stopped the threat and that you used the same terminology in court. I agree with you that you should always shoot “center mass” UNLESS, you are highly trained to go for a different part of the anatomy and you have NO knowledge of Kens training.

  • Rick Shoun

    Good info to have. I read an piece about the NY stat police and their 9mm study. They discovered that 115 JHP opened best on impact. Based on your table, I am not at the bottom of the barrel with my nine’s. Thanks

  • Scottie La Botte

    Where did the table come from. The 44 mag data is crap. And if it is how much of the rest is.

    • Tom Williams

      It’s about right shooting out of the box target ammo. You want to buy Buffalo bore or hot defensive loads, the numbers change considerably. So does the shootablity.

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  • edster48

    Think I’ll just stick with .45 JHP. Two extra mags and I practice under stress and one handed/weak hand. No problems nailing a 10 inch plate at 15 yards. SHTF I think I’m prepared.

  • Ratcraft

    Although I pack 380 and 9mm most of the time, at home, 15 rounds of 10mm is hard to beat.

  • Scottie La Botte

    I am not sure where the 2 in the chest one in the head crap came from but that is what it is. Unless your cold as ice (which most arn’t) you will be lucky to hit the person under stress let alone the two and one. Practice center mass. If your opponent goes down after one or two shots your done go to the next threat. Watch what happens in the shootouts shown. When the fight starts getting out is the plan by all parties.

  • rich rogue

    357 mag was my first choice , being able to penetrate multiple layers of heavy clothing is a factor in Michigan. this

    is not a problem for 357 mag . 45 acp , or 9mm may not do so well . check body armor ratings . the 357 mag is just below the 44 mag . I also carry 10 mm , very close to the 357 mag but more capacity.

  • William Snapper

    None of them it is the one in your gun that is the best round for self-defense!

    If I am not mistaken hollow points are illegal is some states?

    • Jeremy

      HP rounds aren’t illegal anywhere for CC, Hydroshock are, as are metallic tip Ballistic tip rounds. if anyone ever succeeds in removing HP from the list of “approved” ammo… :(

      • David A. West

        That’s nonsense. HP rounds are legal in most states. I know they are legal in Florida where I live. Texas, Georgia, SC, Kansas. I suspect that CA, NY and NJ may have outlawed them, but they don’t like people to have guns anyway. They are in both of my carry weapons.

      • William Snapper

        It is illegal in NJ have HP ammunition in a gun EXCEPT at a range. It’s the law there.

  • Rob James McMillan

    I am truly shocked you left the 10mm out of this picture 40 cal. would not exist without it therefore it was first. It is twice the 45 ACP is faster and has more muzzle energy then a 41 magnum this is truly an interesting cartridge as I owned a few of them in the early eighty’s there is not a very big envelope for ammo I walked away from it and kept finding myself going back to it better than 12x the envelope today is incredible it goes everything from a 77 grain to 230 grain bullet with an unbelievable envelope of speed and muzzle 77 grain 2450 foot per second with a muzzle energy of 1050 in the civil defense round the Underwood make some incredible ammo as well 1600 foot per second with 787 foot pounds of energy not shabby when he look at the cavity vortex 22 inches ballistics gel it is incredible for me hands down I have every caliber on your list this to me is the best of the best

  • Budd Dunson

    38 super with newer types of hps are a definite self defense round though often overlooked

  • Goose

    Everything works, if not quick enough, just up the dosage.

  • David A. West

    People who watch lots of movies tend to think that a revolver with lots of power will get the job done with a single shot. Unless you are damned good at head shots, this is not true. Even body shots will not instantly stop an assailant. Two cases in point, a Florida Wildlife officer was shot 6 times with a .45 – all good shots – and lived to talk about it. In Ocala a few years ago, an old man shot robbers at an “Internet Cafe” with his .380 and all they did was run away.

    To be prepared, one needs both magazine capacity as well as a spare magazine or two.

    Most importantly, one needs practice. Standing at a table shooting stationary paper targets is not enough. When you are faced with a situation that requires the use of your weapon, your heart will be racing and your adrenalin will be causing your hands to shake. You will need practice acquiring the target under stress and practice remaining on target. A high-powered revolver is too difficult for most people to keep on target due to the high recoil.

    Lastly, one thing that wasn’t considered is the cost of practice ammo. If your shots cost you a buck a pop like a .45 colt you probably won’t practice as much as you would if you had cheaper ammo. .380s are common, but the ammo is twice the price of 9mm Luger.

    I believe that the S&W M&P9c or Glock’s counterpart are excellent carry weapons. Their 12 round mags and the low cost of training rounds as well as the strong impact of the 9mm round make them excellent weapons. Furthermore, in a rapid firing situation these guns with their large sights and stable recoil make acquiring the target and reacquiring it after a shot easy.

  • Tom Williams

    Bigger’s better for stopping, smaller’s better to always be armed. The ol’ adage ” one size fits all” most definitely won’t work when deciding what and how to carry