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Choosing the Best Handgun Cartridge: Matching the Tool to the Job

Best Handgun Cartridge

The “best” handgun cartridge is subjective. How you intend to use your handgun is the biggest determinant of which cartridge you should choose. What works best for plinking cans off backyard fenceposts isn’t going to cut it for bear defense.

We decided to outline the most popular handgun cartridges in current production to help you pair the right cartridge with your shooting discipline. In this article, you’ll find the pros and cons of each option and a description of what each one does best.

.22 LR

The .22 LR (called the “twenty-two long rifle”) is the tiniest caliber on this list. This minuscule rimfire cartridge is also the softest recoiling cartridge we’ll cover, which makes it a great option for introducing young or new shooters to the sport.

With little power cruising behind the .22-inch bullets, .22 LR really isn’t a viable round for personal protection. Even at the muzzle, those meager bullets are only packing a little over 100 foot-pounds of energy.

However, that doesn’t mean these rounds can’t be deadly. All it takes is a small injury to a major artery or a vital organ to kill someone, and these little boogers have a reputation for bouncing around erratically in soft tissue.

.22LR ammo is super cheap. Even the expensive stuff only costs a few pennies a round. If burning through ammo is your idea of a good time, the .22 LR makes for an affordable and fun afternoon of shooting.

Here are a few mild-shooting options to consider when you’re shopping for a new .22 pistol: the Ruger Mark IV, the Browning Buckmark, and the Walther P22.

.380 ACP

The .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) is still a relatively small cartridge. However, this option shoots the same diameter bullets as the popular 9mm Luger. The .380 ACP is sometimes called the 9mm Short or 9mm Kurtz.

While the .380 ACP packs significantly more punch than the .22 LR, it is still a little wimpy when it comes to “stopping power.” Muzzle energies rarely top 200 foot pounds.

However, this cartridge is a popular option for pocket pistols. A lot of concealed carry gun owners choose this handgun cartridge for their backup guns.

The recoil from this cartridge is ultra-mild making it manageable for older, disabled, or recoil-sensitive shooters.

If you’re looking for a reliable, easy-to-conceal pocket pistol, check out the Ruger LCP or Sig Sauer P238.

.38 Special

The .38 Special is the brainchild of firearms powerhouse Smith and Wesson. Introduced in 1899 as an improvement on the .38 Long Colt, this cartridge was a favorite of police departments for over half a century.

The .38 Special is practically synonymous with J-frame revolvers, and your options for handguns are basically limited to wheel guns. However, models like the Ruger LCR, Smith & Wesson M&P Bodyguard 38, and Weihrauch Windicator are not only affordable but also easy to shoot.

Simple to use and insanely reliable, revolvers have a place as self-defense weapons. The main drawback is ammo capacity. Wheel guns typically only hold 5 or 6 rounds, so in a personal defense situation, you’ll need to make every round count.

Fortunately, the .38 Special produces minimal felt recoil, which allows most shooters to make quick, accurate follow-up shots.

While the .38 Special does have its perks, buying a revolver chambered for this cartridge may not be a smart idea.

.357 Magnum revolvers safely shoot both cartridges, so buying a sidearm chambered for the bigger cartridge is like getting two guns for the price of one.

It basically doubles your ammo options, too. We learned how important it is to have cartridge options during the Great Ammo Shortage of 2020.

.357 Magnum

The .357 Smith & Wesson Magnum was introduced in 1934. It is slightly longer than the .38 Special, and though it shoots the same caliber bullets, it is more powerful than its shorter cousin.

The biggest advantage to shooting revolvers is that they are more reliable than autoloaders. With a wheel gun, you never have to worry about your ammo jamming.

The biggest disadvantage of shooting a revolver like the .357 is its limited ammo capacity. At the most, you’re going to have 8 shots, and reloading a wheel gun isn’t exactly an easy, simple affair, especially when you’re system is hyped up on adrenaline.

Few shooters are nearly as adept at reloading and shooting a .357 Magnum revolver as Jerry Miculek.

Because the .357 Magnum’s case holds more powder than the .38 Special, it delivers more muzzle velocity and power. That extra speed and energy come at a cost, however.

The .357 Magnum’s recoil can be difficult to handle, especially when you’re shooting a smaller wheel gun. Using a heavier model with at least a 6-inch barrel will help soak up some of the cartridge’s snappy recoil.

We recommend the Ruger Model SP-101 or the Colt .357 Magnum Python.

9mm Luger

The 9mm Luger (also known as the 9x19mm Parabellum or simply “nine mil”) is currently the most popular cartridge for both law enforcement use and civilian self-defense.

Although the 9mm was once criticized as “too little gun” for self-defense, advancements in ammo technology have closed the performance gap between the 9mm and bigger caliber options, especially when using 9mm hollow point defense rounds.

Today, the 9mm is considered the gold standard of defensive handgun cartridges. It offers a near-perfect balance of velocity, power, and shootability. When topped with expanding bullets, the cartridge produces wide wound channels and enough penetration power to reach vital organs.

Popular 9mm pistols include the Glock 1 (which is the most popular handgun model in current production), Smith & Wesson M&P Shield, Sig Sauer P365, and Ruger LC9s. Options range from pistol caliber carbines to subcompact conceal carry models and everything in between.

Because everyone and their brother is in love with the 9mm Luger, there are plenty of ammo options on the market. You won’t find this kind of variety for any other cartridge. Shooters can choose from a wide range of bullet weights and designs.

Also, because demand also drives pricing, 9mm ammo for both practice and protection is relatively affordable. The low cost of 9mm ammo allows you to put in enough range time to master your shooting skills without worrying about damaging your bank account.

.40 Smith & Wesson

The .40 Smith & Wesson was designed in the wake of the infamous 1986 Miami Dade shootout that ended with the deaths of two FBI agents. Another 5 FBI agents were injured in a standoff with bank robbers armed with two .357 Magnum revolvers, a Ruger Mini-14, and a 12-gauge shotgun.

The new pistol caliber was engineered to deliver better ballistics than the 9mm but in a platform that was easier to shoot than the FBI’s 10mm Auto. Many agents of the day had a difficult time qualifying with the hard-recoiling 10mm.

Although the .40 S&W was once a popular law enforcement cartridge, it is on its way out. More and more shooters, civilian and law enforcement alike, are dropping this cartridge in favor of the 9mm Luger.

However, there are still plenty of shooters who swear by the .40 S&W. While the muzzle velocity of the .40 S&W is similar to the 9mm, the .40 hits the target with far more energy, driving deeper into soft tissue for more catastrophic damage.

Although the .40 S&W produces less recoil than its 10mm predecessor, it is still a pretty heavy hitter. Some shooters even claim that the bigger caliber .45 ACP has recoil that is easier to control.

Even in a full-size pistol, the .40 S&W’s recoil can be snappy and hard to tame, which can make getting back on target for quick and accurate follow-up shots a bit problematic for some shooters.

As its popularity fades, handgun options are beginning to shrink. However, if you are dead set on shooting .40 S&W, you should be able to find plenty of quality second-hand options.

The good news is that most major handgun manufacturers haven’t completely abandoned the .40 S&W chambering.

Some quality options still in production include the Glock 22, Sig Sauer P226, Taurus G2C, and Springfield Armory XD-S.

Because it takes more raw materials to manufacture the bigger caliber, .40 S&W cartridges are typically more expensive than comparable 9mm rounds. The lower demand for .40 S&W loads also drives the price up, so expect to invest more in both your FMJ practice loads and your self-defense ammo.

10mm Auto

The bigger, older brother of the .40 S&W, 10mm Auto was introduced in 1983. It was initially designed by Norma Precision for the Dornaus & Dixon “Bren Ten” semi-auto pistol. The cartridge was engineered to shoot faster and flatter than the .45 ACP, while delivering more power and wider wound channels than the 9mm Luger.

The 10mm Auto produces tons of energy, which many consider too much to be a practical personal defense round. Over penetration can be a serious issue when using this cartridge for home defense. Rounds that go straight through bad guys can cause serious collateral damage.

If part of your personal protection plan includes possible encounters with big grizzlies, the 10mm Auto makes a capable bear defense cartridge, especially when your ammo is topped with heavyweight hard cast bullets.

As a backcountry sidearm, the 10mm Auto brings plenty to the table. It delivers lots of power, shoots reliably and consistently, and with mag capacities that reach near 15 rounds, you have plenty to lob at a charging bruin.

The recoil on this one is pretty brutal, even for some experienced shooters. The FBI actually dropped the cartridge, because their agents couldn’t pass competency tests with their duty pistols. To say this cartridge can be difficult to shoot is an understatement.

The 10mm Auto has largely fallen out of favor among law enforcement personnel. However, it hasn’t completely gone the way of the dinosaur. Although the cartridge (and the guns chambered for it) are considerably more obscure than they were a few decades ago, both are seeing a resurgence in popularity.

The most popular models include the Sig Sauer P220, Glock 40, and the Colt Delta Elite.

.44 Remington Magnum

The .44 Remington Magnum (also known as .44 Magnum or 10.9x33mmR) is probably best known for its appearance in the 1973 movie Dirty Harry starring Clint Eastwood.

The .44 Magnum was once touted as the most powerful cartridge in the world. Since its introduction in 1954, other more powerful cartridges have hit the market. However, the .44 Magnum remains a potent option for shooters who live by the motto “Go big or go home.”

The .44 Magnum is usually housed in a big bore revolver. That means you’ll only get about five or six rounds before you need to reload.

Those five or six rounds are going to hit with a massive amount of energy, however. That stopping power is a major perk if you find yourself toe to toe with an angry bear.

Because the .44 Magnum hits with such force, it also has some seriously harsh recoil. It takes some muscle (and sometimes some courage) to tame this one.

A few popular revolvers chambered for .44 Magnum include the Ruger Super Redhawk, the Taurus Raging Bull, and the Smith & Wesson Model 69.

.45 ACP

The .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol)  was engineered by firearms mogul John Moses Browning to go with his iconic Colt Model 1911 semi-auto pistol. The cartridge and 1911 were both used by the US military for decades. Fans of the .45 ACP regularly brag about it being the cartridge “that won two world wars.”

The cartridge shoots a hefty 230-grain bullet, and although those projectiles only reach velocities around 850 fps, they tote a ton of energy downrange.

The cartridge also features larger diameter bullets than most other popular handgun calibers. Straight from the muzzle, these bullets already measure .45 inches wide. Add a bullet design that produces double diameter expansion and this cartridge punches big holes in bad guys.

The best part about the .45 ACP is that it manages to deliver all that power and expansion without creating excessive recoil. While this might not be the cartridge to hand your 90-year-old Granny, its recoil is manageable for most shooters. It is actually not much heavier than the 9mm’s recoil.

The .45 ACP is a pretty bulky cartridge, so the guns are logically on the bulky side, too. Although these sidearms aren’t easy to conceal, they make wonderful home defense pistols.

The .45 ACP’s largish dimensions take up magazine space, so shooting a pistol chambered in this bigger caliber is going to cost you at least a few rounds of magazine capacity. Most 1911-style models only hold around 7+1 rounds. If you go for a larger semi-auto, like the G21, you’ll get three more rounds.

Although Glock’s G21 is a popular law enforcement duty weapon, the .45 ACP cartridge is practically synonymous with the Model 1911. The two go together like peas and carrots. If you want a classic pairing, the Ruger SR1911, Kimber Warrior, and Colt Royal Blue 1911 CLassic do not disappoint.

Feeding your pistol .45 ACP ammo is also going to cost you. Some loads run twice the price of 9mm ammo in the same product line. However, .45 ACP won’t cost you nearly as much as big bore calibers like .44 Magnum, and you can always save a few bucks by buying in bulk.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we covered the most popular handgun cartridges on the market today. This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many other fine options available to modern shooters, but they may be a little more difficult to get your hands on.

The best handgun cartridge is the one you can shoot with confidence and proficiency and has enough power to get the job done, no matter what that job may be.

Alice Jones Webb
Written by
Alice Jones Webb