The Best Defensive Calibers: Handgun Edition

— Travis PikeCADRE Dispatch

When it comes to carrying a handgun, one of the most important decisions you’ll make is the caliber you’ll carry. There are plenty of great defensive calibers on the market, and today we’re discussing the best options and why they might be the right choice for you.

The Best Defensive Calibers

Popular calibers like .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and .357 SIG are all capable defensive calibers that occupy the market. Even older or unusual calibers like 7.62 TOK, 44 Special, and beyond are capable calibers. Are they the best calibers for defensive carry? Maybe, maybe not.

One of the most important considerations of defensive calibers is its ability to penetrate. The most accepted measure of penetration is the FBI’s protocol with properly calibrated ballistic gel. If a round can penetrate 12 inches of this ballistic gel, then the round meets the FBI standard. All the calibers on this list can meet that protocol. 

Best All Around Defensive Caliber: 9mm

The 9mm round dates back to 1902 when Georg Luger produced the round for the famed Luger pistol. It’s had quite the journey in the last century and some change. It’s currently the king of defensive calibers and is in use with most Western military forces, the majority of United States and European police forces, as well as most concealed carriers.

Ballistic improvement and projectile design have closed the gap between the 9mm and the larger rounds out there. 

The classic 9mm mixes penetration and expansion, with low recoil and excellent capacity. (Freedom Munitions)

The 9mm can penetrate deeply and expand widely, making it an effective threat-stopping choice. The round offers very moderate recoil, even in uber-compact pistols, and balances a capable capacity with a capable round. It’s one of the most affordable centerfire pistol rounds on the market, and it’s super common. 

Best All Around Defensive Caliber for Revolvers: .38 Special 

When it comes to the wheel gun, the .38 Special has been the big dog for a long time — over 120 years.

The .38 Special throws a moderately sized projectile at various speeds, depending on your load. The famed +P rounds increase the speed, and plenty of effective rounds offer low recoil. The .38 Special is widely available in various jacketed hollow point loads and a wide variety of projectile weights. 

federal punch 38 special
.38 Special is still finding its way into modern loads.

.38 Special ammo and guns are super common. It’s easily the most common revolver type on the market. The .38 Special round can be utilized in super compact, mid-size, and beyond full-sized revolvers.

With the right projectile weight and design, the .38 Special can effectively penetrate deep enough to stop a threat in any common barrel length. It’s one of the few excellent all-around defensive calibers that’s well-proven, common, and affordable enough to train with en masse. 

Best Defensive Caliber For Low Recoil: .380 ACP 

If the 9mm feels somewhat snappy, then the classic .380 ACP in a compact platform might help. I’m not talking about guns as small as the Ruger LCP. I’m talking about guns like the SIG P365-380 (the smaller cartridge variant in the series of SIG PP365 variants), the Ruger Security-380, and other similar compact-sized .380s.

The .380 ACP uses a 9mm diameter bullet, but it offers a lighter projectile and requires less oomph to move with decent speed. 

380 super vel ammo
The .380 ACP provides low recoil from compact pistols.

In a compact firearm, this translates to considerably lower recoil. The .380 ACP is quite capable of deep penetration and even expansion when fired from a compact pistol.

While ultra-small guns like the LCP have harsh and unforgiving recoil, the larger .380s are a real joy to shoot and handle. The little .380 ACP has enough penetration to stop a threat without beating up the user’s hand. 

Best Defensive Caliber for Pocket Pistols – .32 ACP 

If you are looking for a pocket pistol, then the .32 ACP is an excellent choice. While many will scoff at anything below .380 as defensive calibers, with the correct ammunition choice, the .32 ACP can penetrate deep enough to stop a threat. From a very small gun, that means using full metal jacket ammo to ensure penetration.

Even when fired from a super small gun, the .32 ACP tends to be very easy to control and easy on the hands. It has half the recoil of a .380 ACP from a small gun and from a short barrel. The two aren’t that different ballistically.

32 acp fmjs
The 32 ACP works best as an FMJ rather than a JHP.

The .32 ACP is perfect for those uber-small guns that drop into your pocket and disappear, like the KelTec P32, the Beretta Tomcat, and the Seecamp LWS 32. You do lose expansion, and .32 ACP tends to be a little pricey but still common and easy to find. 

Most Versatile Revolver Caliber: 357 Magnum 

Revolvers allow you to use a very versatile load design because the gun doesn’t depend on the round to function. The .357 Magnum is one of the more versatile rounds on the market.

The .357 Magnum load is a very powerful and capable self-defense load that can be loaded to both lower and higher levels of power. Faster bullets tend to penetrate deeper, and if your self-defense scenarios involve bears, then the .357 Magnum makes a lot of sense. 

ammo for 357 magnum
The .357 Magnum comes in hot and light loads.

The same .357 Magnum revolver can handle .38 Special without an issue, which gives you a very low recoiling option for target shooting and training. The .357 Magnum comes in a wide variety of projectile designs, as well as numerous projectile weights. You can typically find something for every situation and every size revolver. 

Most Versatile Automatic: 10mm 

In the same vein as the .357 Magnum, we have an automatic option in the form of the 10mm Auto. The 10mm Auto is a fast-moving, hard-hitting cartridge that is very versatile and capable. It can also be used to defend against wild animals but can offer capacities ranging from 8 to 15 rounds.

The 10mm load can be downloaded to 40 S&W velocities for lighter recoil and easier shooting rounds. The same gun can fire amped-up rounds that reach the lower levels of .41 Magnum.

10mm ammo
The 10mm can be loaded light like a .40 S&W or even up to 41 Magnum levels.

The 10mm does have excellent penetration and expansion. It’s a great all-around woods gun and offers great penetration through thin barriers. The round flies flat with excellent range. Ammo is admittedly expensive, and the guns aren’t all that common compared to .357 Magnum, but Glock, Springfield, Colt, SIG, and FN all make modern 10mm handguns. 

Calibers Count 

While these calibers are what I feel are the best defensive calibers out there, they aren’t the only effective options. They tend to be the more common and most versatile solutions for self-defense. Self-defense is a big world, and maybe .32 H&R Magnum works for you. As long as the round can consistently penetrate in accordance with FBI standards, you’ll be in the right ballpark. 

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