Common Handgun Defensive Calibers

The three most common defensive pistol caliber cartridge categories in use today are the 9mm, 10mm, and 11.43mm. We further divide them into the common 9mm Short (.380 ACP), the 10mm short (.40 Smith and Wesson); whereas, the 11.43mm is more strictly associated with the .45 Automatic Colt Pistol (ACP) cartridge, although it could also be related to the .45 Colt cartridge, which is common, but is not a common defensive cartridge.

However, there are around forty cartridges that fall within the 9mm category. There are around 25 cartridges in the 10mm category, and around thirty-three cartridges in the 11mm category. We just typically equate each category with certain cartridges. 9mm cartridges include the .38 Special and .357 magnum cartridges, along with the .41 magnum, .44 Special, and .44 Magnum cartridges.

Of the more common defensive pistol calibers, we joke about such things as “my cartridge is better than your cartridge” or the .40 Short and Wimpy cartridge is no longer. My favorite is that the current 10mm cartridges are not true 10mm cartridges.

The current argument seems to surround the .40 Smith & Wesson and the 10mm Auto cartridges. By now, we should all know the history of these two cartridges, and I would rather steer you to the applicable Wikipedia references than attempt to repeat it all here.

I once said that if I needed more punch out of a certain caliber, I would rather move to the next higher caliber and save the wear and tear on my pistols from shooting +P or +P+ ammunition. For most, but not all, semi-automatic pistols; however, ‘beefing up’ to a higher pressure load simply means a recoil spring change (at least on the 1911). For me, trying out a .40 Smith & Wesson cartridge meant a somewhat sizable investment in a new pistol, and I did so, even though the ballistic figures dictated that I should not. And, even when I invested in a pistol to shoot the 10mm for a comparison between the 9mm, .40 Smith & Wesson and .45 ACP, even though the ballistic figures again were troubling me, I did so.

Using my logic; the .380 Auto (9mm Short) is to the 9mm Luger what the .38 Special is to the .357 Magnum, is what the .44 special is to the .44 Magnum, is what the .40 Smith & Wesson (10mm Short) is to the 10mm, and the .45 ACP is to the .45 Winchester Magnum. The latter keeps the type of cartridge (rimless) in the same category.

The development of the 10mm cartridge was to replicate the performance of the .357 Magnum in a semi-automatic pistol. It is said that a “true” 10mm cartridge is more between a .357 Magnum and a .41 magnum. It is said that the 10mm cartridge is no longer true to its roots and that it has been ‘wimped’ down to .40 Smith & Wesson ballistics. I have found one example of that.

The Federal 180-grain Hydra-Shok in a .40 Smith & Wesson case has a velocity of around 1,051 fps out of a 5” barrel. The same bullet in a 10mm case has a velocity of 1,069 fps out of a 5” barrel (source: http://www.ballisticsbytheinch.com/calibers.html). This is akin to what I used to do for shooting .38 Special loads in a .357 Magnum case for competition or light range loads; simply download a full-length magnum case to ‘special’ ballistics. I also used to do this for .44 Special and .44 Magnum, as I saved money by not having to buy ‘special’ cases.

The top end (by weight) of the defensive loads for the 9mm is the 147-grain projectile. Personally, I prefer a heavier bullet although it normally travel slower. The 124-grain bullet is the de facto standard for the 9mm. The 158-grain bullet became the (defensive) standard for the .38 Special and the lighter 125-grain became the standard (defensive) standard for the .357 Magnum. The 147-grain wad cutter became the standard target/competition load for the .38 special. It seems as if the 180-grain projectile is the standard for both .40 Smith and Wesson and 10mm, which is somewhat against what I thought would happen, but then again, I am not a ballistician. 

With the 10mm there is a wide variety of bullet weights to work with; everything from 135-grain to 230-grain (a little encroachment in the 11.43mm territory) can be made to work in the 10mm case. While I don’t have any ballistic on a 230-grain 10mm loading, the Hornady 200 grain XTP is capable of 1,133 fps out of a 5” barrel (source: (source: http://www.ballisticsbytheinch.com/calibers.html). By comparison the 45AUTO, 200-grain, Elite V-Crown, JHP  is good for 918 fps (source: https://www.sigsauer.com/store/45acp-200gr-elite-v-crown-jhp.html). The question for me, at this point, would be if the Hornady 200 grain XTP is as accurate in my Springfield Armory XDm-10 5.25 pistol as the 45AUTO, 200-grain, Elite V-Crown, JHP is in my 1911.  That may sound like comparing apples to oranges, but if a cartridge simply does not have the accuracy that you are looking for, you need to be looking for a cartridge that does have the accuracy you are looking for. All ammunition is a balance of power, penetration, and expansion fired from a given firearm at a given time.

The closest cartridge that I have found (so far) in 10mm flavoring that somewhat matches the velocity of the 125-grain .357 Magnum (1,571 fps) round is the Cor Bon 135 gr. Pow’R Ball at 1,328 fps out of a 4” barrel. Out of my Springfield Armory XDm-10 5.25, I might see an increase to 1418 fps. Now, we are getting into a serious defensive load. But, in 9mm, the Federal 124 gr. Hydra-Shok JHP loafs along at 1,194 fps out of a 5” barrel. That is no slouch either. Still, neither reaches .357 Magnum ballistics for a bullet that is 1 ounce greater in weight. One must ask if the step-up from 9mm to .40 Smith and Wesson, or in fact, to a 10mm is worth the change? Since we are talking strictly self- or home-defense, it may not be.

I can usually be found carrying a 1911 pistol in .45 ACP. If, for some reason, I decided to switch to a 1911 (or other pistol) in 10mm, I would probably opt for the Sig Sauer 10MM, 180-grain, Elite V-Crown, JHP that could obtain 1250 fps as compared to the Sig Sauer 45AUTO, 185-grain, Elite V-Crown, JHP that is good for around 995 fps or my usual 45AUTO, 230-grain, Elite V-Crown, JHP @ 830 fps. Again, accuracy is a must in any caliber in any pistol.

In 9mm, I am good with the standard 124-grain JHP at around 1,165 fps or so.

I am no longer researching .40 Smith and Wesson. My search has ended, and I have enough fodder to feed the beast for a while. I am still researching 10mm, as I feel that its diversity is a plus; it can be loaded light for competition, practice, or defensive purposes and heavy for hunting purposes. As with the .357 Magnum, it may (finally) be recognized as an all-around cartridge.  The .45 ACP was pretty much developed for one thing and one thing only – combat, although target competition was inevitable due to its military upbringing.

Now, we can’t close this thing out just yet. Beside the caliber, there are other things to think about. One is affordability.


Of the three calibers mentioned (10mm includes .40 Smith & Wesson), the 9mm is the cheapest to shoot, in general. The 9mm is followed by the .45 ACP only because of its popularity. The 10mm is chancy currently. I have been able to catch practice ammunition on sale for about the same price as 9mm and .45 ACP.  Defensive and hunting ammunition can be very pricey, but that can be said of any caliber that is used for hunting and defensive purposes. No matter how well a cartridge is touted by the manufacturer, you will never know how that cartridge performs until it is used in the situation for which it is intended; hunting or personal defense.  In short, we rely on a lot of what “experts” say about a given cartridge. For my 1911 .45 ACP needs, the Sig-Sauer line of ammunition is the most accurate in these pistols, and in some of my Springfield and Glock pistols, but not all. In some pistols, another brand of ammunition is more accurate. That is the beauty of having a myriad of ammunition at hand (the internet?) is that we can experiment until the right combination of firearm and ammunition is found.

Ammunition, in general, is not cheap and the price keeps increasing. With that said, not having enough ammunition can be very expensive and the cost may be greater than the ammunition cost itself.


If a lot of anti-gunners get their way, ammunition will not be available at all to U.S. civilians. Thankfully, we are not there, and I hope that I am not around should that happen. We have found in the past that when things start looking bad, the most common ammunition quickly disappears. 10mm ammunition is getting better in locating and .45 ACP is usually not a problem. 9mm ammunition (target or otherwise); however, is usually the hardest to find when things look like they are going south. And, since this article is on handgun calibers, I won’t even go into the rifle calibers.

While I won’t say that stockpiling is a good thing, it can be. My usual practice is to shoot one box and buy two to replace it – for each firearm that I own. After awhile I reach my minimum storage quantity and anything beyond that is a big plus. My wife asked me the other day after seeing a news item (drug bust) or something; “Who needs that much ammunition anyway!” I could not really answer, because I thought that she was the smart one in the family.

Ammunition, if kept high, dry, and if kept in good temperature and humidity, can last a very long time. Surplus ammunition is a good example of that.  I’ll just say store as much as you feel comfortable storing.  If you go to the range on a regular basis, there will be an auto-rotation in play as you replace what you have shot. When ammunition goes on sale, grab as much as you can afford and store it properly.


Recoil is, of course, subjective. One thing that we can all agree on; however, is that a smaller, lighter firearm will recoil more than a large, heavy firearm. Even the 9mm, the softest recoiling of the three caliber under discussion, can be a handful in a light, sub-compact pistol. Regarding the Beretta 92FS (The M9), some complain that it is too big and heavy for the caliber, but it is one of the least recoiling pistols.

A lot of people, including myself, enjoy shooting the 9mm. It is usually easy to get the pistol back on target for quick follow-up shots. It is an excellent caliber for both new and seasoned, and young and old shooters.

The recoil generated from the .45 ACP cartridge can be quite a handful in compact pistols, 1911 or not. It has a large bullet of around 230 grains and has moderate recoil.  I can tell you from personal experience that this is not a round to hand to someone who’s never fired a gun before. That does not mean that it cannot be managed, but it simply means that the choice of handgun to fire it from needs to be carefully researched to find the right pistol to fit your needs. The felt recoil from the .45 ACP cartridge is more of a push than a sharp pulse into the hand. I find that the full-size (Government) model of 1911 is adequate aiding in recoil management, but the recoil impulse can be controlled just as well with polymer pistols in the right hands. One of my better 1911 purchases came because a gentleman who had purchased an Israeli Industries 1911 ‘Commander’ said that the pistol scared him when he shot it; he did not expect that much recoil.

The generated recoil of the 10mm can range from mild to wild depending on the cartridge. Now that doesn’t mean that you’re going to suffer from PRSD (Post Recoil Shock Disorder), or will it make you run to a safe space (well, maybe some would). Essentially, the 10mm has great stopping power and harsh recoil. A sharper snap than the 9mm cartridge, the 10mm in a defensive cartridge has no greater recoil than a .45 ACP, just different, and can be controlled effectively through proper gripping of the chosen platform from which it is shot. The generated recoil from a full-load hunting cartridge; however, can be quite stout, but not brutal. Considering that the .44 Magnum is a member of the 10mm family (bullet diameter = .429 in (10.9 mm)), I could shoot a 10mm (.400 in (10.2 mm)) in a hunting load a lot longer than the .44 Magnum.

The .40 Smith & Wesson, still a 10mm cartridge, is loaded at the low end of the 10mm spectrum. The generated recoil is a tad more than the 9mm cartridge and a tad less than the .45 ACP. Overall, it is an easily manageable cartridge to fire.


Shown above is only a very small sampling of the more popular self-defense cartridges. While interesting, real performance is measured in the real world and nobody really knows how well a cartridge will perform until it is used in the real world, and that will not tell the whole story. Performance (penetration and expansion) is only accurate for that moment in time and under the conditions and material it is exposed to.

In Summary

Economical and excellent up close, the .45 ACP is an exceptional choice for a self-defense, plinking and competition. The cartridge hits hard at close range, makes big holes, and has a proven track record of taking and saving lives. A more lenient recoil, it is also easier to become competent within a shorter amount of time and potentially is a faster option if follow-up shots are a concern. Manageable recoil also makes it a more logical choice if you’re looking for a compact carry gun.

Given its long lifespan, there are a lot of pistol options to choose from for the .45 ACP (eight for Glock alone, and a wide variety of choice in the 1911). In turn, you have a greater likelihood of finding exactly the right pistol for your purposes, whatever they might be. And in the long run, it will prove cheaper to shoot. Ammo, at least at time of writing, is abundant and easy on the pocketbook. There are a lot of options, including self-defense, that falls below the 50-cents per round mark. Do your shopping comparisons for the best price.

Conversely, if you have a yen for a handgun that reaches out, hits hard, and if you happen to reload it has more room to work with, your money might be better spent on a 10mm. It’s the choice if you’re aiming at handgun hunting or need protection against four-legged predators, instead of simply two. Not that the “Perfect Ten” isn’t a capable self-defense cartridge, it is. Only it requires more time and effort to become truly proficient with, outside its lightest loads. This is especially the case if you opt for a smaller-framed model of pistol.

Ballistic-wise, whereas the 10mm travels over 17 inches after impact, the 9mm counterpart only goes for about 13 inches. What this means is that whereas the 9mm may penetrate through a single person, the 10mm brother can go through two grown up humans and keep going, depending on the cartridge. In other words, the latter is what you need when hunting the bear, while you need the former for home protection and self-defense. As far as power is concerned, there is; therefore, no outright winner in the discussion on 9mm vs. 10mm vs. .45 ACP. If there are no collateral damage risks, such as when hunting, then the 10mm carries the day with full-load hunting ammunition. But, if you live in the city or the burbs, go for the 9mm, a defense-level 10mm (or .40 Smith and Wesson if that is your choice), or the .45 ACP.

9mm vs. 10mm vs. .45 ACP! Which is best? This is a question that is quite tough to respond to. The only person who can give and answer to the question is the jury and you are the jury. All the caliber have pros and cons with all of them having incredible loyalists who will never set one of them aside for the other.

There are those who love the power that comes with the 10mm handgun. All their joy lies on the fact that they know that with a single shot, the target gets disabled.

On the other hand, the 9mm is loved for its easy to shoot feature, its versatility, and the fact that you have the peace of mind that your safety and that of others other than your target, is almost guaranteed.

The .45 ACP is a battle proven cartridge with relatively mild recoil and is usually the one called in when serious business is at hand. To play off an old saying; “The 9mm and 10mm may expand to 11.43mm, but the 11.43mm will never shrink to either of them.”

On a last note; time will tell if the .40 Smith and Wesson remains as a top defensive load or if it will be relegated to the .380 Auto status; everybody knows its there, but nobody cares. At Midway.com, at the time of this writing, there are seventy-nine different selections of .40 Smith and Wesson ammunition with bullet weight varying from 115-grain to 200-grain and includes some shotshell selections. I don’t see it going away soon, if ever. AN example where the .40 Smith and Wesson nearly meets the .45 ACP is with the Sig Sauer Line of Elite V-Crown, JHP ammunition. The .40 Smith and Wesson 180-grain kick in with approximately 985 fps; whereas, the .45 ACP 185-grain exits the barrel at approximately 995 fps. The weight and speed difference is not enough to make a difference. And the size difference is only about one silly millimeter.

All in all, know your needs before making your choices.

The Unthinkables – Lasting Impressions

A continuation to the .45 ACP cartridge was not mentioned, as this places the 11.43mm cartridge well above ‘defensive use,’ but there are obviously cartridges of greater girth and ballistics, none of which would be considered for personal protection by anybody in their right mind. But, of course, had their not been men not in their right mind (according to some), and of a higher caliber than most (pun intended) cartridges like the .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum may never have come along, let along cartridges like the .500 Linebough and others.

Aside from the aforementioned cartridges, two of my favorites were of 11.43mm persuasion; the .45 Super and the .45 Winchester Magnum.

For the .45 Super, a number of bullet weight and velocity combinations are offered, including a 185-grain (12.0 g) bullet propelled at 1,300 ft/s (400 m/s), a 200-grain (13 g) at 1,200 ft/s (370 m/s) and a 230-grain (15 g) at 1,100 ft/s (340 m/s). as well as other weight/velocities provided by Super Express cartridges and Buffalo Bore, such as 255-grain (16.5 g) at 1,050 ft/s (320 m/s). While I had fired the .45 Super, I never owned a firearm for it.

For the .45 Winchester Magnum; however, the L.A.R Grizzly Win Mag (shown below) resided in my stable for a while. Due to its extremely large and heavy 1911-based frame, the LAR Grizzly Win Mag was really not that bad to shoot.

Some ballistic information for the .45 Winchester Magnum is shown below:

230 gr (15 g) JHP Underwood: 1,600 ft/s (490 m/s), 1,307 ft⋅lbf (1,772 J)
255 gr (17 g) HC FN Buffalo Bore: 1,400 ft/s (430 m/s), 1,110 ft⋅lbf (1,500 J)
260 gr (17 g) Power-Point Winchester: 1,200 ft/s (370 m/s), 831 ft⋅lbf (1,127 J)

About Taurian

Taurian is an Oath Keeper, veteran, former LEO and Defensive Tactics Instructor. Until retirement, Taurian had over forty-seven years of experience as a Technical Writer and Training Program Developer. After leaving home at the age of ten without any shoes, Taurian continues on with many years devoted to the keeping and bearing of arms.

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