When it comes to choosing a handgun, caliber is usually the first thing shooters consider. Whatever you
intend to use the handgun for determines the caliber that you will need. Some handgun calibers are better suited for certain activities. For instance, a handgun that has a caliber large enough for hunting probably isn’t going to work well for concealed carry. On the other hand, a firearm that’s small enough to wear on your ankle may not be chambered in a caliber that’s ideal for home security. How do you know which caliber you need? To help you out, the firearms experts at Triangle Shooting Academy have created this essential guide.
Definition of Caliber
As we explain in Understanding Firearm Calibers and Gauges, the term “caliber” pertains to a handgun’s bore as well as the diameter of a bullet. Firearm calibers are typically measured in millimeters, hundredths of an inch or thousandths or an inch. A great example is the highly popular 9 mm handgun, which has a bore that measures approximately 9 mm in diameter. A .45 caliber handgun has a bore diameter of approximately .45 inches. Learn more about the basics of firearm calibers.
Over the years, handgun manufacturers have developed a wide variety of calibers. Major events, such as the outbreak of war, often prompt new caliber creation. As with many things, handgun calibers can be subject to trends. Their popularity grows or wanes depending on several factors, including new firearm development, firearm reviews and use by military and law enforcement agencies. If Special Forces operators, the FBI or another tactical group switch to a new caliber, chances are the news will affect public opinion and, subsequently, increase handgun and ammunition sales. Regardless of the trends, firearms enthusiasts will continue to compare calibers and debate their effectiveness.
There are a few core handgun calibers that have remained popular with shooters over the years and make excellent choices for most uses. Here are the most popular calibers that every shooter needs to know:
.22 Long Rifle
Best for: Target Practice, Small-Game Hunting
The .22LR (long-rifle) is the smallest caliber handgun on our list. It’s an ideal caliber for plinking thanks to its nearly non-existent recoil and the low cost of ammunition. Handguns chambered in .22LR can be used for hunting small game and varmints, including rabbits and squirrels. The .22LR uses a rimfire cartridge that is easy and cheap to purchase. Most outdoor sporting goods stores carry .22LR ammunition.
Best for: Concealed Carry
The small size of .380 ACP handguns make them ideal for concealed carry purposes. Most models are extremely easy to conceal in a purse, inside a waist band or underneath a pant leg. However, the small case size and short barrel provide limited stopping power and make the .380 ACP a better choice as a back-up handgun rather than a primary self-defense or home-protection weapon.
9 mm Parabellum
Best for: Self-Defense, Home Protection, Concealed Carry, Plinking
One of the most popular handgun calibers worldwide, the 9 mm Parabellum is a top choice for a variety uses. The 9 mm is the standard carry handgun for the majority of police departments across the US. It’s also used today by the FBI and the US military, including the Navy SEALs. You can find 9 mm handguns offered by several manufacturers in multiple configurations, including full-size frames that are great for target practice, home protection and self-defense. Models with smaller frames and shorter barrels work extremely well for concealed carry. Thanks to a relatively light recoil, the 9 mm is a great caliber for beginners and smaller shooters. Ammunition is plentiful and usually cheaper than the larger calibers on this list. With recent improvements in 9 mm ballistics, its performance is now nearly identical to the larger .40 S&W and .45 ACP.
Best for: Self-Defense, Home Protection, Concealed Carry
The next step up in caliber size is the .40 S&W handgun, which fires a 0.40-inch (10 mm) bullet. The .40 S&W was developed in 1990 by Smith & Wesson, in conjunction with Winchester, as an improved caliber for law enforcement agencies. Its creation was spurred by an infamous 1986 shootout in Miami, FL between eight FBI agents and two bank robbers. Today, most of the top firearm manufacturers offer handguns chambered in .40 S&W. This caliber does generate a little more recoil than the 9 mm and ammunition is typically more expensive per round. The .40 S&W handgun is an effective choice for self-defense, home protection and concealed carry. However, its popularity has greatly decreased in recent years due to the increased effectiveness of 9 mm ammo.
Best for: Self-Defense, Home Protection, Concealed Carry
Created in 1905 by the legendary John Browning, the .45 ACP was one of the most popular handgun calibers of the 20thcentury. To this day, the .45 ACP in the M1911 platform is still used by law enforcement agencies and militaries around the world. The .45 ACP handgun fires a bullet that is approximately .45-inch in diameter—larger than both the comparable 9 mm and .40 S&W. The wider bullet is one reason why many seasoned shooters still prefer the .45 ACP for personal defense. However, increased recoil and higher priced ammunition make the .45 ACP less attractive for weekly target practice. While a certain private investigator in Hawaii might have carried his .45 ACP inside his waistband, full-size 1911s are on the large side for concealed carry.
.38 Special/.357 Magnum
Best for: Self-Defense, Home Protection, Concealed Carry, Hunting
The .38 Special and the .357 Magnum are extremely popular calibers most closely associated with revolvers. The .38 Special revolver was the sidearm of choice for law enforcement agencies for much of the 20thcentury. These two calibers are often grouped together because bullets for each handgun are the same diameter: approximately .357-inch. However, cartridges made specifically for .357 Magnum handguns have a greater length. Handguns chambered in .357 Magnum will shoot .38 Special cartridges, but .38 Special handguns will not accept the longer .357 Magnum cartridges. For those who prefer to shoot revolvers, the .38 Special and .357 Magnum calibers are incredibly effective for a variety of uses. Large-frame .357 Magnum handguns can be a great choice for hunting, while snub-nose models are suitable for concealed carry.
.44 Special/.44 Magnum
Best for: Home Protection, Hunting
Back in the ‘70s, Clint Eastwood immortalized the .44 Magnum as the caliber of choice for his tough guy character “Dirty” Harry Callahan. It was touted as the most powerful handgun and cartridge available to the public. Today, the .44 Magnum remains a popular caliber for big-game hunters who prefer using a handgun. The .44 Magnum has taken some of the largest big-game animals in the world, including bears, Cape buffalo and elephants. While the .44 Magnum can be used for home defense, it’s generally not the best choice due to increased recoil and over-penetration of bullets.
Ask Our Experts
The staff at Triangle Shooting Academy has years of experience helping guests select the best handgun caliber for their individual needs. Stop by today to get free advice from one of our firearms experts. You can also try out handguns in multiple calibers on our state-of-the art indoor shooting range.