Handgun Calibers [Definitive Guide + Videos]

Quickly learn the pros and cons of common handgun/pistol calibers.

Popular Pistol Calibers
Popular Pistol Calibers

We’ll also cover average price, recoil, and recommended self-defense ammo for each.

And for the ones we shoot regularly…some videos!

Some Quick Terminology

Don’t worry…we’re not going deep into the weeds with these definitions.  But you’ll need some to make sense of everything.

What is Caliber?

Caliber is the size of the bullet’s diameter and it can be measured in both inches and millimeters (mm).

Most of the time if there’s no overt “mm” at the end, it’s in inches.

And a little bit of terminology…”bullet” is just the metal projectile while the whole thing is called a “cartridge.”

9mm (115gr vs 124gr vs 147gr)
9mm (115gr vs 124gr vs 147gr)

And how about the parts of a cartridge?

Parts of a Bullet Cartridge
Parts of a Bullet Cartridge

And deconstructed in real life…

Deconstructed 9mm Cartridge
Deconstructed 9mm Cartridge

Now…we can move onto some numbers we’re using to rate the upcoming calibers.

Bullet Weight

Measured in grains (gr) which is a really small unit of measurement.  7000 grains make up a pound.

Velocity

Speed in feet/sec that the average round exits the barrel

Energy

Measured in Joules (J), a very rough approximation of the destructive power.

Since each caliber has a range of different bullet weights and velocity…we’re choosing the most popular loads…or going with a range here.

Handgun Caliber Guide

Finally!

1. .22LR

.22LR Round
.22LR Round

The “twenty-two” long-rifle is a teeny tiny round but don’t let its size fool you.

It’s the most common round out there and is a “rimfire” instead of a “centerfire” round like all the other ones coming up.

Rimfire vs Centerfire Primer Strike
Rimfire (L) vs Centerfire (R) Primer Strike

This just means the firing pin hits the rim instead of…the center.

Centerfire vs Rimfire Primer
Centerfire vs Rimfire Primer

The recoil is barely there and it’s a great round to start off as a beginner.

Still deadly though…these tiny rounds apparently have a habit of bouncing around inside the body and hitting vital stuff.

But not really known as a good defensive round that will quickly end a fight (Best .22LR Ammo for Plinking, Accuracy, & Hunting).

  • Bullet Weight: 30-40 gr
  • Velocity: 1200-1600 ft/s
  • Energy: 140-160 J
  • Price Per Round: 4 to 7 cents

2. .380 ACP

.380 ACP Round
.380 ACP Round

This small round is known as the “three-eighty” ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) but sometimes called the 9mm Short or 9mm Kurtz.  It’s very popular as the caliber of choice for small pocket pistols but offers much less power than 9mm Luger up next.

You can check out our favorite loads in Best .380 Ammo and also some of our favorite .380 Pocket Rocket Guns.

  • Bullet Weight: 90-95 gr
  • Velocity: 1000 ft/s
  • Energy: 275 J
  • Price Per Round: ~25 cents

3. 9mm

9mm Round (115gr)
9mm Round (115gr)

The 9mm Luger or Parabellum is my personal favorite and is carried by 60% of the police forces in the US.  The FBI has returned to it, and the Navy Seals recently adopted the Glock 19 chambered in 9mm.

Here is the G19 in action…

Mild in recoil, affordable for lots of training, and small enough to have a good-sized magazine (~17 for full-sized handguns).

There’s a decently wide variety of weights.  For plinking ammo I prefer 124gr over 115gr for slighly less snap.

9mm (115gr vs 124gr vs 147 HP)
9mm (L to R, 115gr vs 124gr vs 147 HP)

Plenty of flavors of hollow-point self-defense ammo that are very effective (Best 9mm Ammo: Self-Defense & Range).

9mm 147 Federal Hydrashok HST
9mm 147 Federal Hydrashok HST

And the caliber for the bulk of my recommends in Best Handguns for Beginners.

Best Beginner Handguns
Best Beginner Handguns
  • Bullet Weight: 115-147 gr
  • Velocity: 1000-1300 ft/s
  • Energy: 500-600 J
  • Price Per Round: ~20 cents

What’s your take on the ubiquitous 9mm?

Readers' Ratings

4.57/5 (269)

Your Rating?

4. .40 S&W

.40 S&W Round
.40 S&W Round

The “forty” Smith & Wesson was a very popular law enforcement round with more recoil than the 9mm.  However…it’s on the way out.

It is a shortened version of the 10mm round so sometimes it is derisively known as the “40 short & weak”.  Check out our fav options in Best .40 S&W Ammo.

  • Bullet Weight: 155-180 gr
  • Velocity: 1000-1200 ft/s
  • Energy: 575-650 J
  • Price Per Round: ~30 cents

5. .45 ACP

.45 ACP Ball vs Hollowpoint
.45 ACP Ball vs Hollowpoint

A big caliber that fuels the venerable 1911 pistol.

Rock Island Armory 1911 GI Midsize
Rock Island Armory 1911 GI Midsize

The “forty-five” ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) has legendary stopping power for non-hollow point bullets.

You’ll hear cute sayings like “9mm only kills your body…a .45 kills your soul.”

9mm vs .45 ACP
9mm vs .45 ACP

People get REALLY into it…so much so we dedicated an entire YouTube video to it:

Good amount of recoil compared to the 9mm and .40 but feels more like a push because of its slower-moving big bullet.  Check out Best .45 ACP Ammo.

  • Bullet Weight: 230 gr
  • Velocity: 900-1000 ft/s
  • Energy: 500-700 J
  • Price Per Round: 25 to 30 cents

6. 10mm

10mm Round
10mm Round

The big brother of the .40 S&W and much rarer.

Originally designed to be flatter shooting than the .45 and better stopping power than the 9mm.

Plenty of kick and energy.  Check out our Best 10mm Guns and Best 10mm 1911 articles.

  • Bullet Weight: 180 gr
  • Velocity: 1000 ft/s
  • Energy: 575 J
  • Price Per Round: ~60 cents

7. 5.7 FN

5.7 FN Round
5.7 FN Round

A quirky little round developed by FN to easily penetrate soft body armor by sheer velocity.

However…there’s only two guns that shoot it…with the pistol variety being the FN Five-SeveN.

Five-SeveN with Ammo and Mag 2
Five-SeveN with 5.7x28mm Ammo and 20 Round Magazine

You get an above average magazine size of 20 rounds.  But if you’re a civilian you can’t get the armor piercing variety.

  • Bullet Weight: 40 gr
  • Velocity: 2300 ft/s
  • Energy: 500 J
  • Price Per Round: ~50 cents

8. .38 Special

.38 Special Round
.38 Special Round

The “thirty-eight special” is not to be confused with the .380 ACP.

This round is very popular with revolvers and was the standard caliber for police departments from the 20’s to the 90’s.

Recoil is manageable but not the most fun if you’re shooting with a tiny revolver.  Can be fired in .357 Magnum guns.

For ammo suggestions, check out Best .38 Special Ammo.

  • Bullet Weight: 110-200 gr
  • Velocity: 675-980 ft/s
  • Energy: 200-320 J
  • Price Per Round: 35 to 40 cents

9. .357 Magnum

.357 Magnum Round
.357 Magnum Round

Big brother to the .38 Special, it’s slightly longer and more powerful.

.38 Special vs .357 Magnum
.38 Special vs .357 Magnum

You can shoot the .38 Spl in a .357 revolver, but don’t go the other way around!

Great reputation for stopping power.  Check out our top choices in Best .357 Magnum Ammo.

  • Bullet Weight: 125-180 gr
  • Velocity: 1200-1500 ft/s
  • Energy: 700-1050 J
  • Price Per Round: ~80 cents

Even Bigger Calibers

We’ve got you covered if you like bigger booms.

Check out our Rifle Calibers Guide.

Common Rifle Calibers
Common Rifle Calibers

Or if nothing but half-inch diameter pistol rounds will do…Best .50 Caliber Cartridges.

left to right 9mm, .50 Beowulf, and .500 Linebaugh
(L TO R) 9mm, .50 Beowulf, and .500 Linebaugh.

Conclusion

These are just what we think are the most common handgun calibers you’ll see out there.

Popular Pistol Calibers
Popular Pistol Calibers

If you want to learn more about bullet calibers and the type of bullets out there (such as full metal jacket vs hollow-point), check out our Bullets Guide.  Or if you just want to see our suggestions for the Best Ammo.

Different Bullet Tips (FMJ, Soft, Open, Ballistic)
Different Bullet Tips (L TO R: FMJ, Soft, Open, Ballistic)

32 Leave a Reply

  • Volcomdork182

    I feel like the 10mm is underrated on this article. The round you mention is an underloaded 10mm. All the rounds I have are over the ratings you state here. How do you have the .40 s&w posted as higher energy, and velocity?

    1 second ago
  • mountainhobo

    "[.22 LR] these tiny rounds apparently have a habit of bouncing around inside the body" -- I trust this was sarcasm?

    3 weeks ago
    • David, PPT Editor

      Nope! That is rooted in science, according to Traumatic Brain Injury: Methods for Clinical and Forensic Neuropsychiatric Assessment "Bullets of low-velocity, such as 0.22-caliber rifle bullets or handgun bullets, cause more damage at the site of entry and rarely pass completely through the skull. The bullet may ricochet inside the skull and traverse the brain in various directions. Low-velocity bullet injuries tend to produce complicated injuries. Often, fragments of bone, scalp, hair, or clothing are driven into the intracranial cavity." The science behind it is that due to the low-mass and low-velocity of .22LR it has a tendency to bounce off of or be redirected by bone rather than blowing through bone like larger and faster bullets do. Thus, bouncing around inside the body.

      3 weeks ago
  • Tim Bland

    Thanks not only for this "beginner's" article, but your entire website. I appreciate all the info, videos, and equipment reviews. Yours is one of the firsts I go to when I have questions. From Virginia, Good Day!

    3 weeks ago
    • Eric Hung

      So glad we could help out!!

      3 weeks ago
  • TT

    Why don't people talk more about the .30 carbine cartridge in a revolver?

    4 months ago
    • William Chapman

      The 30 Carbine is actually a rifle round. It has been chambered to be shot in larger revolvers like the Ruger Blackhawk. The round is very accurate but not particularly powerful. The commercially available ammunition is anemic at best. The bullet choices in both the commercially made and for the reloader are few and mostly FMJ.

      1 month ago
  • 32isthebest

    I always wonder why the calibers in between 22 LR and 380 ACP are mostly left out. 327 FED performs better than 38 SPC and gives you 6 instead of 5 in a simular sized revolver.

    9 months ago
    • John Connor

      Agreed. While not as popular as the .380 ACP in the U.S., the .32 ACP still has a following. Given its ubiquity in the 20th century and the following it still has today, I would put it in the list.

      3 weeks ago
    • LazrBeam

      to the .327 Fed Mag. I also noticed that the .32 ACP is always left out (I’ve carried that on occasion especially before the dinky .380’s and subcompact 9’s came out) and moving up the scale the .44 Spc is overlooked.

      3 weeks ago
      • LazrBeam

        That was a thumbs up to the .327 Fed Mag, BTW.

        3 weeks ago
  • Kenny D

    The writer obviously likes the 9mm. He said so. But 500 to 700 ft. lbs? A .357 that puts out 1050 ft. lbs.? Few .44 mag rounds reach that level. But aside from the numbers he made some good points. As a side note I'd like to see someone with a web sight that helps newbies looking for protection. I've seen too many women buy a 9mm that stays in the bedroom but they buy a sub compact. Kicks really hard for them when size/weight of the pistol doesn't matter. The little pistol intimidates them with the recoil when a larger pistol with the same cartridge wouldn't. I've seen it too many times. Only when carrying concealed is smaller better.

    9 months ago
    • David, PPT Editor

      Energy is in Joules, not ft/pounds. 9x19mm commonly falls between 480 and 620 Joules. That would be between 350 and 450ish foot-pounds.

      9 months ago
      • Thomas R Foster

        David, Love y'all, love Pew Pew, but this is America, with screamin' bald eagles and V-8 engines. No more joules. They are not allowed as a form of measurement. Ft/lbs only when measuring bullet energy.

        3 weeks ago
  • Common Knowledge

    Your clueless about the 10mm.

    10 months ago
    • David, PPT Editor

      You're* You're welcome :)

      10 months ago
      • undeRGRound

        Well, the listed specs are for the 40 S&W strength 10mm. The original Norma loading was 200gr at 1200fps and way more energy in Joules than what you listed. Yes, that ammo does exist (it is like garden variety 40 S&W) but the real 10mm stuff is much more powerful than even the best 40 S&W. My son and I like to shoot 10mm in full size pistols and the extra weight makes the recoil seem tame after a few mags! I am a true 10mm believer, my first experience was a G20C with 15 rounds of Buffalo Bore 220gr at 1200fps, exceeding Norma Specs and just that single mag made it feel like I had been chopping wood all day with a steel handled axe! Full Power 10mm exceeds most of the "on the shelf" 357 Magnum ammo from the major manufacturers. But apples to apples, the 357 can beat the 10mm by a bit. Usually by 100fps at a given weight. If you love 6 shooters, use the 357 Mag. but for autoloaders, 10mm is your best bet! I love and have both, which is covering all the bases!

        4 months ago
  • Lisa K.

    Nice visual

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks Lisa!!

      1 year ago
  • Greg Krest PhD

    Nice idea for an article, but as others have said, your numbers are way off. I find it strange that the 10 mm short (40 cal) is more powerful Than the 10 mm. On other calibers you at least give a range, but the 10 mm just gets 575j. Maybe a little more research would be in order before you publish an article.

    1 year ago
  • Travis

    The information you provided for the 10mm is severely skewed. The 10 mm rounds that were originally developed before the 40cal existed were 1200-1400 feet per second and 6-800 lbs of kinetic energy. Those rounds are widely available at the very few places that even carry 10mm ammunition these days. The round was intentionally made with less powder after released because it was to much gun for the fbi that it was designed for... the 40 cal was the result of making a smaller cartridge because there was to much wasted space after watering down the round. The 10 mm is almost exactly on par with the 357 magnum balisticaly

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks for that, Travis!

      1 year ago
  • Tyler Wasserman

    Hi, My name is Tyler and I'm 13 Years old, Do you think you could send me a few lists of ammo from weakest to strongest, smallest to biggest, including the same info you did in the ones you posted here? (Price, Weight, Velocity, and energy) Could you also send a list of guns, cheapest to most expensive, and maybe in your opinion, worst to best? Thank you so much! From, Tyler

    2 years ago
      • Tyler Wasserman

        Thank you for all this, but I was wondering if I could find simple lists, as in this post, for the things above. Where can I find that?

        2 years ago
    • dsfnfksek

      Don't do it

      2 years ago
      • Tyler Wasserman

        Don't do What?

        2 years ago
  • .380assassin

    You stated your personal favorite was 9mm and it clearly shows in your inflated figures of the 9mm's performance man....your figure of 500-600j would represent like a 9mm+p++ if there were such a thing....on average, 9mm gets 315-450 with regular ammo & tops out at 500 at the very most with the hot stuff like MagSafe, Underwood, Buff. Bore, etc. Your figures of 10mm are very deflated as well. 575 would be the baseline with the weakest ammo, while it tops out at over 775, so an accurate range of energy would be your 575-785, which is a huge difference. Other than that, I thoroughly appreciate you putting this comparison together for us and really enjoyed your rifle ballistics comparison article as well! Keep up the good work and keep shooting man!

    2 years ago
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks! I'll check up on the numbers.

      2 years ago
  • David Schmitt, Ph.D.

    Excellent site. Excellent format: informative, parsimonious, clean, not a lot of hype & bravado.

    2 years ago
  • Gloria Lemmen

    Hi, I'm looking for a low power 380 round for my deringer. This will alow me to get used to it and work up to the regular 95 grain, if that is posiable I'm a ccw holder for Wisconsin. Thank you for your Time! Gloria

    2 years ago
    • .380assassin

      As far as looking for a softer shooting .380 round, most hollow points, such as Winchester train & defend (black box) are very light on recoil although they're about the same price for a box of 20 as a Remington box of 50 fmj and/or Winchester white box, etc. The fmj range ammo can definitely have a little more perceived recoil than some of the regular non-plus p hollow points out there, so if price isn't an issue for you I'd go with some simple Winchester train & defend, Federal premium hydra-shock, etc. (which can be had just about anywhere including Walmart)

      2 years ago
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