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Best Cartridge for Concealed Carry: Keeping It Under Wraps

Best Cartridge for Concealed Carry

While every cartridge has the capability to stop a dangerous threat, some are just better at it than others.

In the end, the best caliber for concealed carry is one that does enough damage to quickly eliminate a threat. It also needs to be loaded in a gun you can shoot well when you need to, but keep reasonably hidden under clothing until you do.

Choosing the Best Cartridge for Concealed Carry

Finding the right cartridge/handgun combo for concealed carry isn’t as easy as you might think. What works well for one concealed carrier may not work at all for another.

Choosing a CCW is mostly about finding the right balance of power, shoot-ability, and concealment. That balance point is influenced by the individual shooter’s body type, strength, experience level, and even personal wardrobe choices.

The 9mm Luger is currently the most popular cartridge for concealed carry in the US. It is also our top pick. Although 9mm Luger works well for the vast majority of shooters, it doesn’t work for everyone all of the time.

We decided to dive into the most popular cartridges used for modern concealed carry. Self-defense is a very personal issue, and no one other than you should decide which cartridge you should use. This article will help you weigh the pros and cons of each option and get you one step closer to making an informed decision about what to carry.

9mm Luger - Our Top Pick

Although it was once considered “too little gun” for defensive shooting, modern technology has brought the 9mm Luger a long way in just a couple of decades. Today, 9mm is the most popular CCW cartridge on the market. It is widely used by law enforcement and civilians alike.

Energy and Penetration

Advancements in bullet and ballistics technology have moved the 9mm Luger from the “underpowered” category and made it a viable option for eliminating bad guys.

Although the 9mm shoots a smaller projectile than larger calibers like the .40 S&W and the .45 ACP, the differences in wound diameters between these three cartridges are nominal. Many 9mm home defense loads feature hollow points that expand up to twice their original diameter.

9mm is sometimes criticized as a self-defense load because larger calibers shoot heavier projectiles and carry more kinetic energy (which is often construed as “stopping power”). What the smaller 9mm lacks in weight, it more than makes up for with velocity.

9mm bullets zip from the muzzle at around 135 fps faster than projectiles fired from a .45 ACP. Velocity has a major effect on kinetic energy. If you double a bullet’s velocity, its energy quadruples. The extra speed behind the 9mm doesn’t quite even the energy score, but it definitely improves terminal performance.

The real question here isn’t whether 9mm has more “stopping power” than larger calibers. That answer will always be “no”.

But does the 9mm have sufficient energy for self-defense? Absolutely.

Recoil

Perhaps the 9mm’s best selling point is its relatively light recoil.

The effects of recoil on shooter accuracy, especially in a high-adrenaline, life-or-death situation shouldn’t be overlooked. Because the 9mm’s recoil is relatively easy to control, shooters can get more rounds on target faster, which is essential to eliminating bad guys who are hellbent on destruction.

Shooting 115-grain loads from a 1 ½-pound 9mm pistol produces a relatively mild 5.2 foot-pounds of recoil. All but the most recoil-sensitive shooters should be able to handle this mild-mannered cartridge.

Concealment

9mm handguns come in a variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from subcompact to full-size. Smaller pistols are obviously easier to conceal. However, the recoil on the lightest handguns can be a bit on the snappy side, which can make follow-up shots more problematic.

Magazine Capacity

Because there is so much variety in the world of 9mm handguns, magazine capacity also varies greatly. Choosing a smaller model will always cost you a few rounds of capacity. However, smaller models are obviously easier to conceal.

Cost and Availability

Because 9mm is the most popular concealed carry cartridge on the market today, there are tons of gun and ammo options to choose from.

Every major ammo manufacturer produces multiple 9mm loads in all their popular target and self-defense lines.

There is also a vast selection of firearms chambered for this popular handgun caliber. You can choose from easy-to-conceal subcompact options (like the single-stack Glock 43) to full-size pistols (like the Springfield XD) that are easier to shoot but much harder to conceal.

The polymer Glock 19 is currently the most popular 9mm pistol in current production. Although this model is considered a compact pistol, its size can be difficult for smaller-framed shooters to effectively conceal.

Other popular 9mm concealed carry handguns include the Smith & Wesson M&P Shield, the Sig P365, and the Springfield Hellcat.

.380 ACP

Designed by John Moses Browning in 1908, the .380 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge is basically a shorter version of the popular 9mm Luger. A standard 9mm round measures 9x19mm, while the .380 ACP is one millimeter shorter.

Energy and Penetration

Because the .380 Auto case is shorter than the classic 9mm, there is less room to pack in propellant. That means the .380 has a lot less oomph behind it.

The .380 ACP pushes 90-grain hollow points from the muzzle at an average velocity of 1000 fps with 200 foot-pounds of energy. That is extremely modest when compared to the 9mm’s muzzle velocity (around 1135 fps) and muzzle energy (332 foot-pounds).

Critics of the .380 ACP claim it doesn’t have enough “stopping power” for personal defense. However, with modern defensive loads and careful shot placement, the .380 Auto can be a highly capable round. 

Because 9mm and .380 shoot the same diameter projectiles, the widths of the wound channels they create are comparable.

Recoil

Compared to any of the other cartridges on this list, the .380 ACP’s recoil is an absolute pussycat. With only the mildest felt recoil, this cartridge is often the best option for weak, disabled, or recoil-sensitive shooters.

Concealment

Smaller calibers are genuinely easier to conceal, and the .380 Auto is one of the smallest self-defense options on the market today. Pistols chambered in .380 ACP are generally compact, lightweight, and perfect for all-day EDC.

The .380 Auto is a popular chambering for pocket pistols, so if you’re looking for an option for spy-level deep concealment, this is it. The perfect size for an ankle holster or pocket carry (for safety, always use a proper holster), .380 pistols make a great backup partner for full-size pistols.

Magazine Capacity

.380 ACP pistols are small guns, which means they don’t hold a surplus of ammo. Most models only hold 6 or 7 rounds, which means you’ll need to make every round count.

The low round count is another reason many defensive shooters consider .380 ACP as a backup option rather than a primary weapon.

Carrying an extra magazine (and having the skills to change it under duress) is just a smart idea.

Cost and Availability

Because .380 Auto rounds are usually harder to find than 9mm, expect to pay a few extra pennies per round.

Popular concealed carry guns chambered in .380 Auto include the Glock 43, the Walther PPK, the Sig Sauer P238, and the Ruger LCP.

.38 Special

Developed by Smith & Wesson in 1898, the .38 Special was the standard law enforcement cartridge for more than 60 years. Although this cartridge has been largely usurped by newer options engineered for semi-automatic handguns, the .38 Special remains the default cartridge for self-defense revolvers.

Energy and Penetration

9mm Luger and .38 Special cartridges are both topped with the same diameter bullets. However, there’s a lot less power behind bullets coming from the .38 Special.

Because the .38 Special’s case was originally designed to hold black powder, it isn’t safe to handle the higher pressures a full dose of modern propellant would produce. For that reason, these wheelgun cartridges have a SAAMI pressure specification of 17,000 psi. Meanwhile, the 9mm Luger has a SAAMI rating of 35,000 psi.

The .38 Special is a low-pressure, low-velocity cartridge, so it doesn’t carry the same kinetic energy or penetrate as deeply as 9mm loads. While wound channels will be shallower than those delivered by 9mm, the .38 Special rarely over penetrates, which is a good thing if you have to draw your snub nose in a populated area.

Recoil

The .38 Special produces even less recoil than the 9mm Luger, which is why it is a popular option for women, new shooters, and people who are recoil-sensitive.

Concealment

A small, lightweight J-frame snub nose revolver chambered in .38 Special is one of the easiest handguns to conceal, especially if you opt for a snag-free “hammerless” model.

One of the main drawbacks to small revolvers is that they are difficult to reload, especially in a high-adrenaline defensive situation.

Magazine Capacity

Because most .38 Special CCWs are wheel guns, capacity is limited to five or six rounds.

Cost and Availability

The .38 Special is almost exclusively a revolver cartridge, which seriously limits your handgun selection. In some cases, your options may be limited to secondhand firearms.

.38 Special ammo can also be hard to find and the selection is usually pretty limited. However, it tends to be significantly more affordable than larger calibers like .45 ACP.

.357 Magnum

The .357 Magnum was designed by packing more powder into the case of a .38-44 Smith & Wesson cartridge. Sometimes called a “hot 38 Special,” the .357 Magnum was engineered for outdoorsmen, although it quickly caught on with law enforcement officers.

Energy and Penetration

Shooters sometimes snub the .38 Special claiming it is underpowered for today’s self-defense needs. The .357 Magnum addresses those concerns by adding an extra 400 fps and 150 foot-pounds of energy behind the same size bullets.

When loaded with quality hollow point loads, the .357 Magnum not only works well for home defense but also for hunting small to medium game animals.

Recoil

That extra power comes at a price. No one would classify the .357 Magnum as a mild-recoiling cartridge, and the smaller you go in gun size, the harder the recoil is to control.

Choosing a lightweight, snub nose with a barrel length under 4 inches is something akin to recoil torture. Unfortunately, larger revolvers are much harder to effectively conceal.

Concealment

Full size .357 Magnum revolvers are big and bulky and hard to conceal. Unfortunately, the smaller you shrink these revolvers, the more difficult they are to shoot.

Magazine Capacity

Revolvers chambered for .357 Magnum are usually limited to five or six rounds.

Cost and Availability

Like with .38 Special, your handgun options for .357 Magnum are limited to revolvers.

.357 Magnum ammo runs on the pricey side, so you may want to buy your rounds in bulk.

If you want to practice on the cheap, .357 Magnum wheel guns can also safely shoot less expensive .38 Special loads. However, the reverse is NOT true. You can not safely shoot .357 Magnum cartridges in a .38 Special revolver.

.40 Smith & Wesson

The .40 S&W was developed following the infamous 1986 Miami Dade shootout that left two FBI agents dead and another five injured. The agents had been outgunned by two bank robbers armed with two .357 Magnum revolvers, a Ruger Mini-14, and a shotgun.

After the incident, law enforcement set out to find a cartridge that matched the performance of the FBI’s reduced-velocity 10mm Auto. The idea was to engineer a cartridge that delivered better ballistic performance than the 9mm Luger of the time but was easier to shoot than the FBI’s large 10mm Auto pistols.

The .40 S&W was the result, and it caught on quickly with both law enforcement and civilian shooters. While this cartridge was insanely popular for several decades, it is slowly beginning to fall out of favor. As the performance of the 9mm Luger has improved with better bullet technology, more and more shooters are moving from .40 S&W to the smaller 9mm.

Energy and Penetration

When it comes to velocity and energy, the .40 S&W sits almost exactly in between the 9mm Luger and .45 ACP.

While the in-flight ballistics of the 9mm and .40 S&W are incredibly similar, once the bullets strike the target, those similarities disappear. The .40 S&W hits with far more energy. That energy also drives bullets deeper into soft tissue, producing larger more devastating wound channels.

Recoil

When we compare this cartridge to other smaller calibers, the kick is significant. The felt recoil from a 1 ½-pound 9mm shooting 115-grain bullets is a manageable 5.2 foot-pounds.

Shooting 155-grain bullets from a 1 ½-pound .40 S&W pistol produces 10.6 foot-pounds of recoil energy.

That means the .40 S&W kicks more than twice as hard as a 9mm pistol of the same size.

Many shooters claim that the recoil produced by a .40 S&W makes it more difficult to control than the larger .45 ACP. Some of that can be chalked up to .45s being heavier pistols (the weight helps absorb some of the felt recoil.

The numbers definitely support that claim. A 2 ½-pound .45 ACP pistol shooting 185-grain hollow points produces 6.8 foot-pounds of recoil energy, which is significantly less than the 10.6 foot-pounds of kick from a .40 S&W.

Even in full-size pistols, the .40 S&W’s recoil can be pretty snappy. It also has pretty significant muzzle rise, which can make getting back on target and making fast, accurate follow-up shots tricky.

Concealment

Bigger cartridges usually mean bigger handguns, and bigger handguns are logically more difficult to conceal. However, the .40 S&W gets you closer to big bore power without having to tote around a monstrous sidearm.

Magazine Capacity

Most pistols chambered in .40 S&W have ample magazine capacity for most defensive scenarios. However, larger cartridges take up more space in a magazine.

For that reason, a .40 S&W pistol will usually hold fewer rounds than a 9mm pistol of comparable size. On the other hand, a compact .40 S&W pistol will hold a few extra rounds compared to a compact pistol chambered for the beefier .45 ACP.

Cost and Availability

As both law enforcement and defensive shooters continue to abandon the .40 S&W, handgun options are slowly dwindling. That means second-hand pistols chambered for this cartridge may be more abundant than factory-fresh options. However, powerhouse Glock is still rolling out plenty of pistols (including the popular compact G23), so that may be a good sign that the .40 S&W is heading for a popularity revival.

While .40 S&W ammunition may not be as prevalent as it was just a few decades ago, it hasn’t completely disappeared. Every major ammo manufacturer is still rolling out loads in all their major defensive lines.

Because .40 S&W cartridges require more raw materials to produce than smaller caliber options, ammo is generally more expensive. The lower demand for this cartridge also drives pricing, so expect to spend up to ten cents more per round.

.45 ACP

The .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (more commonly called .45 ACP or .45 Auto) was the preferred carry round for military and law enforcement personnel for almost a century. The cartridge was developed by John Moses Browning to go along with his now iconic 1911 semi-auto pistol.

Energy and Penetration

Although the .45 ACP produces slower velocities than the 9mm Luger, its heavier projectiles deliver more on-target energy.

Another big advantage the .45 ACP has over the other cartridges on this list is expansion.

Right out of the muzzle, the .45-caliber bullets are pretty large, almost a tenth of an inch larger than 9mm projectiles. Quality defensive loads can expand up to twice their original diameter in soft tissue. The result is massive wounds, more blood loss, and more pain, all of which are critical elements in neutralizing a dangerous threat.

Recoil

Although the .45 ACP features big, beefy bullets, it isn’t all that hard to shoot. However, this isn’t the cartridge for recoil-sensitive shooters. Expect significantly more recoil energy from the .45 ACP than from smaller calibers.

Concealment

A standard-size pistol chambered in .45 ACP is going to be much bulkier and more difficult to conceal than a 9mm pistol. However, the .45 ACP is about as large as you can go on the caliber spectrum and still have a handgun you can adequately conceal.

Magazine Capacity

A significant trade-off for the .45 ACP’s “stopping power” is its lower magazine capacity. The venerable Colt M1911 only holds 7 +1 rounds.

Other semi-auto pistols chambered in .45 ACP that are designed for concealed carry have a single stack configuration, which limits magazine capacity. Double stack pistols may hold up to ten rounds, but the thicker design can be difficult to hide under clothing.

Cost and Availability

.45 ACP ammo is typically more expensive than 9mm Luger, sometimes up to twice as much per round. However, it isn’t nearly as pricey as big revolver loads like .44 Magnum.

Final Thoughts

We firmly believe that the 9mm Luger is the best caliber for concealed carry for the widest range of shooters. It delivers adequate power and ballistics, has mild recoil, and there are plenty of models that work well as concealed carry handguns.

However, 9mm isn’t perfect for every concealed carrier. Ultimately, the best concealed carry handgun is the one you can shoot proficiently and carry with confidence. For some shooters, that might be a .38 Special. Others might feel more confident with a .45 ACP in their holster.

Alice Jones Webb
Written by
Alice Jones Webb