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

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.

Choosing the Best Handgun Cartridge: Matching the Tool to the Job originally appeared on


Why is the 9mm the so called “gold standard” I say its weak and unworthybof such a title. I feel like 10mm is better and 45acp even better still. Dont get me wrong if the idea is to waste plenty of ammo then 9mm will be your cheaper option. But if I want to stop something I am going with a truck and not a volkswagon.
I will say it is subjective at best . Bullet selection plays a big part of what each caliber will and can do. For instance say a 10mm will basically always pass through whatvit is shot at is ludicris . Again ammo selectionis key there. Who ever wrote that has their own opinions also.


Actually that’s not what was written unless one discards other words associated with “gold standard”. What was written is that it’s the gold standard for defensive handgun cartridges, meaning self defense in social situations and not against bears or lions. In order for that to be understood one needs to know the balancing act a self defense round must accomplish and what no self defense round can ever do. Forget stopping power unless it’s a psychological stop, but that’s produced in the targets own mind. To achieve stopping power requires hydrostatic shock and that requires roughly 2000fps. Instead handgun rounds for self defense produce trauma, aka organ damage, and shock from the trauma stops the target. So why is a self defense round considered “good”? What qualities does it take? And here I’m writing again what was already written but in a different way. It must have enough power to do the job in the target, but not produce so much recoil as to scare the shooter into not being able to use it effectively. It must be capable of fast repeat shots to get as much energy into the target as possible. The bullets shouldn’t overpenetrate (IMO) because innocents may be behind the target. Those criteria limit the cartridge to just a few; the 9mm, .380. the neutered 10mm (.40), and .45ACP. IMO they’ll all do the job and have been tested on the street by LEOs for the past 50 years or so and the winner has been found to be the 9mm. I rule out the .38 and .357 because they aren’t generally available in a self loader, and despite what you incorrectly think and have written in the past self loaders are not prone to malfunctions when the person is trained and is using the right ammo. If that was the case semi-autos wouldn’t be used by the vast majority of folks in the various action pistol games where they absolutely shine. If malfunctions were prevalent LEOs also couldn’t pass their yearly qualification. Does that mean that everyone should be shooting a self loader? No. There are valid reasons for all the different handgun designs and not any one type will meet every individuals requirements. In the USPSA games there is on division for revolvers to accommodate those folks. Locally we have at least one revolver shooter and I have seen a 2nd, but I’ve never seen more than 2 at any one match and that only once.

Hunting is totally different where velocity can be over 2000fps and over penetration is a non issue. My hunting handguns routinely achieve 2000+fps but would be ridiculous for most justifiable SD or HD. Just as my 9mm or .45ACP could be useable for hunting in a few certain situations, but wouldn’t be my first choices.


Don’t get me wrong i agree with a lot of what you said , but you know if a stress situation is upon you aint no way an average i mean average shooter is gonna rack and clear a jam caused by a weak spring from a constantly loaded auto. Lets just be realistic and say home defense is about surety and in my opinion auto is out. IMHO


That’s why I don’t suggest to most folks a semiauto handgun for home defense. They learn that BS from hellyweird shows. I do suggest a semi-auto but it’s almost always a PCC design that I know to be fool proof. There are lots of firearms to choose from and it doesn’t begin and end with any handgun. I figuratively pound my head into a wall when someone doesn’t listen and still gets a handgun. I have no idea what delusions of grandeur they operate under. Maybe they think they’re going to clear their own home before the LEOs get there? And every shot is a good one as per John Wick? I have yet to see any ordinary home owner practice the way they should to get to where they need to be with a handgun. And with that we’re in agreement except for me revolvers are no better and revolvers do jam. I’ve experienced it and it was totally not my fault but unburned powder between the cylinder and barrel gap.

I suggest to folks that they come out and shoot competitively in the hope that they’ll realize just how lacking they are in basic handgun skills and get more training. One did, realized just how lacking he was, and to prove his “expertise” to everyone acted like a weird expert, didn’t listen to the RO commands and promptly DQed himself, then blamed the sport and not his being a jackass. Lucky he didn’t put a bullet in himself. Heck, they can put hits on paper sort of, as long as movement isn’t required and the BG stays still waiting for it and if they have plenty of time they’re good. But the same situation would occur no matter what action type.


I highly recommend and agree with your assessment here . It could save their life or life of a loved one. And yes anything can fail. Murphys Law is always out there waiting to rear its ugly head .


Today’s modern springs in magazines do much better than even 10-15 years ago. I have magazines that have been loaded months and sometimes years run just fine. But my carry gun mags and home defense mags do get rotated out every 6 weeks. Old habits I guess


Someone years ago, I don’t remember who, did a test and kept a mag’ fully loaded for 10 years. At the end of the test there was no difference between a new mag and the one that had been loaded for 10 years. I haven’t changed my fully loaded EDC mag in many years but checked it yesterday. It still has lots of up pressure on the rounds, so much that I had a hard time getting the one that came out of the chamber into the mag’. Just the way it should be.

In the past I would load to 50% capacity but no longer with todays mag springs.

Magpul makes a drum mag and they come right out and state in the printed owner sheet that leaving it fully loaded won’t hurt it. I don’t think I ever saw that statement before with any other magazines.


I am a basic kind of guy. Basicly the 380, 9, 40, 45, 10 all will kill your assailants. My EDC is a 40. HD? Up first is a 12 ga pump. Patroling? It’s an AR in 5.56/223, or 6.8 SPC depending on many things.

I believe a modern human should always have a firearm handy. When I carry a pistol its because carrying a rifle is to socially awkward. I leave it behind knowing that if I ever need it, I’ll never want it more than rigbt at tht moment.

Some smartass once said ‘The reason to carry a handgun is to fight your way to the rifle you wish you had.’


Your handgun is for fighting to your rifle.
Your rifle is for fighting to your radio so you can call in artillery or an air strike.


So is it a bad idea if my uspsa pistol is also my home defense pistol? Just jhp instead of fmj in the mags.


Are you what we’re discussing above? They’d be most folks who don’t know shit from shinola about handguns. Barely know which end the bullet comes out of. Is that you? Or are you my SIL using Festus’ name who is the above and also has a son who loaded her handgun for her and she doesn’t even have a clue how to unload it? If it is you Lorraine, the answer is still no. I won’t train you, get your training from your son the jackass. If not you Lorraine then read the thread again and who we’re discussing will be quite plain. :smile:


Rotflmao :joy: . I like the rhyme if it’s you Lorianne I won’t train or it should be plain. If the Glove don’t fit you must acquit. It’s just regular Festus from Florida so since I’m familiar with which end is which. I will stick with the handgun until the grand children are old enough to follow the safety rules for a shotgun . I can put the handgun in a safe place quickly when they come over. Plus I fancy myself like the John Dory (like the fish) character from walking dead who only had one shot left so he had someone hold up an ax and when he shot it split the bullet down the middle and ended two walkers. All I have to do is get the home invaders to stand on the pre marked footprints on the floor where I practice the shot with my laser trainer and my mirror finish ax blade.


I hope all of you up there are staying warm.


I have a safe with different firearms for the same reason I have a tool box with different tools.
One size DON’T FIT ALL.
Training and practice is as important as weapon selection.
The most expensive highly recommended firearm by experts is absolutely useless if you can’t hit a damn thing with it.

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Doing good today Festus. Yesterday we had what I’m going to call an inland hurricane. I have no idea if that’s even a thing, but it’s what I’m calling it. Since we were on the warm side of it we got heavy rain and high winds. Lost public utility power for 5ish hours, but we were snug and warm. We’re ready for pretty much anything. I haven’t checked with Joe yet, but he’s also a survivor. After the storm pulled out the temps plummeted and it was in the single digits. But the wood stove was going due to the outage and I just put more wood on the coals and our biggest heat producer was up and running.

We have (had?) and fabric “quonset” hut and that bit the dust. Great time of the year for that! I’ll get a big tarp and hopefully that will last until spring. I had in mind to replace it anyway but now it’s got to be replaced.

But we’re doing OK, the coast caught it from the storm and tides. It wouldn’t surprise me if some folks there are w/o power for a week. They just got power back the day before this storm hit them.

Defensive guns… Just for the record, my primary handgun for HD is a 300BLK AR and that’s only because the citizenry wouldn’t like it if it was also my EDC out and about. My EDC is a 9mm compact or a micro compact. and just a reach away as I type is my USPSA comp’ 9mm. I need to work on that ax thing just in case. I still won’t train Lorraine. And in years past you wouldn’t have caught me with anything but a .45 or a 12 gauge for SD.

Merry Christmas everyone! Stay warm and upright on the right side of the sod!


Bwahahahahahaha ,absolutely…(imagining)if you fellas wouldnt mind could ya’ll step on them there 2 circles . I fixing to fill ya full of lead …lmbo🤣