By GunsmithG

There are many variables to consider when choosing a cartridge for a personal protection handgun. Skill level, recoil tolerance, and cost all come into play. Staying within a budget and allowing for monthly or bi monthly trips to the range, and ammunition for practice can become a burden if a hard to get or expensive cartridge is chosen. Certain cartridges, like the .357 Sig or 10MM for example, are harder to find and usually more expensive when it is found. High cost of ammo equals less rounds for practice, and as a new shooter, practice is extremely important. That's one of the reasons why I recommend a quality .22LR handgun, either semi-auto or revolver to learn the basics with. Recently, because of consumer fears over gun laws and ammunition restrictions, .22LR has gotten a lot more expensive and less available, so that is something to consider also.

A couple of police officers and gun writers, Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, compiled data from across the USA about shootings, the guns and ammunition used, and bullet placement, then wrote a book called Handgun Stopping Power, a comparative real world information source taken directly from police and sheriffs data.

On to selecting a cartridge. Lets start with common revolver cartridges first.

The S&W .38 SPECIAL - The .38 Special has been around for the better part of a century, and was once used by nearly all the police departments before the semi auto was adopted in the late 70's on. The .38 Special was an improvement on its predecessor, the .38 S&W, which was a rather underpowered cartridge, shooting a 180 grain round nose lead bullet at around 640 f.p.s. (feet per second). Its lackluster performance came to notice during the Moro insurrection in the Philippine Islands when Moros were being shot 5 or 6 times and still able to fight. This led the military to adopt the then new Colt 1911 semi auto with its .45ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) cartridge. Smith&Wesson went back to the drawing board, lengthened the casing, added more powder and boosted pressures, and also lightened the bullet to 158 grains, resulting in higher velocity and better stopping power. With modern loadings, and good Jacketed hollow-point bullets, the .38 is a respectable man stopper, averaging a 65-70% one shot stop statistic with a solid torso hit.

The .357 MAGNUM - This is the one that has the best performance over virtually all the modern handgun cartridges out there. Introduced to the public by Smith & Wesson in 1933 as a improvement of the .38 special, this cartridge has proven to be one of the very best as a man stopper, 97% one shot stops, with a solid torso hit using Federal 125 gr. Jacketed hollow point ammo. The combination of a lighter bullet and increased velocity makes this one the top of the class in performance. Also, the added bonus of owning a gun chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge is you can safely shoot .38S&W, .38S&W Special, and .357 magnum ammunition in the same firearm. This makes for a very versatile firearm for shooters who can only afford one gun to do it all.

The .44 MAGNUM - I'm only briefly going to touch on the .44 mag because of the popularity of the "Dirty Harry" movies in which the lead character carries a Smith & Wesson Mod.29 .44 Mag with a 6 inch barrel. This is way too much gun for the novice. I can promise you if you get one, your probably going to develop a nasty flinch or give up shooting a handgun. Back in the 50's when it was introduced, many times you could walk in a gun shop and find a "used" mod.29 with a box of ammo minus 6 shots. Hard kicking, firing a 240 gr. bullet @ around 1400 f.p.s., excellent in the hands of an expert big game hunter. Overpowered and will over penetrate most human sized targets. Pass. One redeeming note: the .44 Mag. will safely shoot the .44 S&W Special cartridge, but that's not easy to find and expensive when you do.

Time to look at semi auto pistol cartridges.

The .32 ACP - Also called the 7.65mm, is a true surprise. Light recoil and impressive numbers when using the Winchester Silver tip ammunition, scores around 60% one shot stops. The nice thing also for those on a gun budget is there are inexpensive imported pistols coming into the US at really affordable prices, as this was a common police gun in Europe for years and was also used for officers sidearms in many European militaries. Not as common as some bigger cartridges, the practice ammunition is more expensive, but still a good useable gun and cartridge.

The 9MM PARABELLUM, or 9X19MM - First introduced in the legendary Luger pistol of WW1 and WW2 fame, this is one of the easiest to find cartridges in the world, used by most militaries as a pistol and a sub-machine gun cartridge. The 9mm Para, or Luger, as it is sometimes called, is a good cartridge for a self protection hand gun, it has a light recoil and high velocity. If loaded with high performance ammo with JHP bullets, this one will perform quite well, with lots of FMJ (full metal jacket) ammo out there as military surplus for target practice. The 9MM took awhile to gain a following, as with FMJ bullets it tended to go right through a target leaving a small hole and a very upset guy still in the fight! This has changed since the availability of good quality JHP ammo.

The .40 S&W - The .40 Smith & Wesson was an offshoot of the ill fated 10MM Norma cartridge of the early 80's. The 10MM was developed as a near magnum cartridge for a semi auto pistol, the Bren 10. The company failed in less than a year because of manufacturing problems (many new Bren 10 pistols were shipped without magazines) and also that the 10MM had heavy recoil and blast. In later days the 10MM ammo was downloaded to be easier on the guns and the shooters, When S&W stepped in and shortened the casing, went to a small primer, and was able to squeeze the same performance out of a cartridge that could be made in a 9MM sized gun, and the .40 S&W was born. Derisively called the 10mm lite, or .40 short and weak, it wasn't long before the .40 became popular with law enforcement and civilians who wanted more hitting power in a 9mm sized package. Firing a 180 grain JHP at around 975f.p.s., the .40 has a strong following these days. The Glock Mod. 22 in .40S&W is the same size as the Mod.17 in 9MM, and holds just 2 cartridges less.

The .45 ACP - The .45 ACP came into being by our old friend John Browning, who developed the cartridge and the first pistol to chamber it, the 1911 Colt, which was adopted by the US military, who were looking for a better handgun after the Moro uprising. Using a 230gr. bullet traveling at 950 f.p.s., this was a major development in a excellent design. Soldiers coming back from both world wars were so impressed with the .45ACP that they often bought civilian versions of the gun they carried at war. The combination of a big diameter heavy bullet and moderate velocity gave the big colt reasonable recoil with good performance as a man stopper.

Now I know that I've passed by a lot of cartridges out there, but I'm a firm believer in the Keep It Simple Stupid philosophy. I'm sure there are others that will perform as well as the ones I've listed, but remember, I wrote this for the true novice. If you decide that shooting a handgun is fun, you'll develop skills and probably end up with many others, if you enjoy em as much as I do anyway.

In Part 3 of our subject, I'll go into shooting stances, accessories and the subject of what gear to augment your firearm.

Till then, this is GunsmithG. I'm outta here!
A short explanation of a common measurement, grains, abbreviated as gr. is a weight measurement in ammunition making. Bullets and powder charges are measured in these. It takes approx. 7000 grains to make a pound.



By By GunsmithG

The task of selecting a handgun for personal protection can be a daunting one for a novice. It is my hope lend a little clarity to this process. First of all, I'm writing this for a true beginners point of view. I don't want to pass up anything that would be "common knowledge" to those acquainted with firearms.

To begin with, let's take a look at the different designs of handguns, and some pro's and con's of each.

The Revolver You can trace it's lineage back hundreds of years, but it wasn't until Samuel Colt introduced his designs for a loose powder, lead ball and percussion cap that it showed its practicality. With the advent of the metallic cartridge, handguns became much safer and more reliable.

Let's touch on some common terminology.

Single Action: This means the outside hammer has to be manually cocked to rotate the cylinder and fire the gun. Double action: this means the gun can be fired either by manually cocking the hammer, or simply by pulling the trigger to fire repeat shots. Most modern revolvers are double action.

Cylinder: The round steel part that holds the cartridges, and turns with each action, lining up a new cartridge with the barrel. The cylinder can be opened to eject the spent casings and reload either by a swing out mechanism, or a loading gate, which is a cut out in the frame to allow access to the ammunition. There is also a type called a break top, but only a few guns are made in this system, as it isn't as strong and more complex to make. With a revolver, there is a miniscule gap between the barrel and the cylinder, usually .006 of an in which allows the cylinder to rotate freely, but minimizes the escaping gases caused by firing.

Sights: There are two types of sights in common use today, fixed or adjustable. fixed sights have the advantage of being smaller and more rugged, where adjustable sights allow you to sight the weapon in for the individual shooter and cartridge being used. There are other types of sights, such as laser and night sights, but we'll touch on that a little later.

Grip Frame & Grips: This is one big advantage the revolver has over the semi auto pistol. By nature of design, a semi auto is restricted to a certain shape of the grip portion, as that is usually where the magazine, a separate piece of stamped metal or plastic contains the cartridges, which are lifted up to be loaded into the chamber by a powerful spring, there's not much you can do to alter that. Revolvers however, usually just have the hammer spring under the grips, and some companies actually make different frame designs for more compact firearms.

Safety: Can be either automatic, or manually controlled, a mechanism which renders the firearm incapable of firing. Most revolvers do not have a manual safety. They have internal safeties that keep it from firing until the trigger is pulled. OK, I know that I've passed over quite a bit of information, but you should have a basic grasp of what goes where and why.

Cartridges: Lets take a look at what makes for a good defensive cartridge. First of all, a cartridge consists of four components: the cartridge case, the primer, the gunpowder, and the projectile, or bullet. The primer is a small metal cup which holds a small amount of a pressure and shock sensitive material. When the firing pin hits the primer, the impact causes it to ignite, which sets the gunpowder on fire. The cartridge case holds the primer in a pocket at its base, plus holds the powder in a sealed container until fired. Upon firing, the case will swell slightly, creating a gas tight seal so you don't get sprayed by burning powder and also allows the bullet to travel down the barrel without bleeding off the pressure. The bullet can be made of a number of materials, usually lead with a copper material that covers the outside of the bullet, making faster speeds and heavier loads useable. Too much pressure or speed can cause a lead bullet to melt slightly in the barrel. This reduces accuracy and is very hard to clean out of the barrel. The barrel itself has grooves machined into the inner surface that twist in a spiral to stabilize the bullet in flight. Think of throwing a football, as it spins, the gyroscopic effect stabilizes it in its flight.

Cartridge Identification: The European metric system actually makes much more sense than the common American system. The military also uses the metric names for ammo, which is much simpler. The formula for this is simple. the first number is the diameter of the bullet, and the second number the length of the casing.

Cartridge Examples: 9 millimeter parabellum cartridge, is very common both as a military and civilian semi auto pistol cartridge. It's designation is: 9X19mm.

The round that the M4 military rifle uses is 5.56X45mm. Most medium range sniper rifles and some military weapons still use the 7.62X51mm, known in the civilian world as the .308 Winchester.

The American system is a hodgepodge of names that sometimes make sense, but often does not, like the 38 Special by SMITH & WESSON, which it's actual bullet diameter is .357. That's where you need to be careful to always know the correct name for the ammo your firearm can shoot safely. There's been many guns blown to pieces by someone not knowing, so this is imperative that you know.

Lets look at one popular cartridge that can be confusing...

Say I've got a old military handgun that says 9mm on it...

Are we safe?


Here is a shortlist of different NON COMPATIBLE cartridges:

  • 9mm Luger
  • 9mm Corto
  • 9mm Bergmann-Bayard
  • 9×18mm Makarov
  • 9mm Browning long

With revolvers, you do have some interchangeability in certain guns. The .357 Magnum revolver can also safely shoot the .38 S&W, .38 S&W special. That's one of the nice things about a revolver, is it is not dependent on the power of the cartridge to make the action work like a semi auto does. As long as you can pull the trigger, a revolver will fire regardless of the strength of the ammo.

Semi Auto Pistols: Most semi autos (keep that term in your head) owe their design to the firearms genius John Browning. His concepts and basic functions are still in use today. The classic American service sidearm, the 1911 and later, the 1911A1, or .45 auto, was in service from 1911 to 1984 as the standard pistol for our military, and is still in use by some special forces units today. Let me clear up a common mistake most beginners share, which is calling a semi auto an automatic. An automatic will fire continuously until it runs out of ammo or you let your finger off the trigger. A semi auto fires one round with each pull of the trigger.

Semi autos are fine handguns in general, but as a novice shooter, they are much more mechanically complex, require full performance ammo to function properly, and also require more upper body and hand strength to work the action to chamber a round, and need good form and a healthy grip to be able to perform correctly. If a revolver is held loosely, it might jump around in your hand, but will perform. A semi auto with that same grip may have a number of difficulties including jamming, empty brass not clearing the action, etc. I advise most novices to start with a revolver first, learn your grips and stances, it is truly as much a martial art as karate, breathing control, sight picture and sight alignment, all can be much easier without getting knocked around by full power loads.

Whether you choose a revolver or semi auto, you need to consider how you are going to use that gun. Longer barrels give you a longer distance between the front and rear sights, making it much easier to shoot well. The added weight helps both with dampening recoil, and also with making your jitters less noticeable. If it's something that's going to stay in your nightstand at home, I would recommend a 4 inch barrel length medium size frame revolver in .357 Magnum, but loaded with lighter .38 S&W Special ammo. If you live in an apartment, condo, or heavily populated areas, the are several small ammo manufacturers that make frangible ammo, which breaks up into small pieces when it hits, lessening the danger to others. You can also get bird-shot loads, but unless you live in rattlesnake country, would not use them for self defense. If you are going to be carrying this firearm on your person, you need to read and study your state's laws about carrying a firearm openly ( which I think is a bad idea) or carrying it concealed. Most states consider a woman's purse to be part of her person, so you have an advantage right there over us guys! If you are going to carry concealed, you need to consider several factors: size, weight, shape, and your clothing on the occasion. Remember too, ladies, that weapon won't do you any good sitting at home, so making it easy to conceal and comfort is a must.

I know that this has been fairly generalized information, however I could write a 500 page book and still leave something out! There are a number of great books out there, such as my friend Massad Ayoob's book, "In the Gravest Extreme" - and - "Armed and Female", by Paxton Quigley. She was a vehement anti gun activist who had an epiphany, and is now a big supporter of women's right to defend themselves, neat lady.

There are also a number of training courses given by the NRA, including a all female class, and outfits like Gunsite Ranch, the Lethal Force Institute,, I'm sure I'm missing lots of them, Google it and see what is available in your area. I know that Massad Ayoob's school, Lethal Force Institute, has instructors touring the country giving classes.

Well my brothers and sisters, that wraps up this tidbit. Go forth, study, learn, and most importantly, have fun, but stay safe!



By GunsmithG