Quickly learn the pros and cons of common handgun/pistol calibers.
We’ll also cover the 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.”
And how about the parts of a cartridge?
And deconstructed in real life…
Now…we can move on to some numbers we’re using to rate the upcoming calibers.
Measured in grains (gr) which is a really small unit of measurement. 7,000 grains make up a pound.
Speed in feet/sec that the average round exits the barrel
Measured in Joules (J), a very rough approximation of the destructive power.
Since each caliber has a range of different bullet weights and velocities…we’re choosing the most popular loads…or going with a range here.
Handgun Caliber Guide
1. .22 LR
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.
This just means the firing pin hits the rim instead of…the center.
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 .22 LR 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
This small round is known as the “three-eighty” ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) but is 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.
Here’s me with a Bersa Firestorm .380:
- Bullet Weight: 90-95 gr
- Velocity: 1000 ft/s
- Energy: 275 J
- Price Per Round: ~25 cents
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 slightly less snap.
Plenty of flavors of hollow-point self-defense ammo that are very effective (Best 9mm Ammo: Self-Defense & Range).
And the caliber for the bulk of my recommendations in Best Handguns for Beginners.
- 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? Give it a rating below!
4. .40 S&W
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
A big caliber that fuels the venerable 1911 pistol.
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.”
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
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.
- Bullet Weight: 180 gr
- Velocity: 1000 ft/s
- Energy: 750 J
- Price Per Round: ~60 cents
7. 5.7 FN
A quirky little round developed by FN to easily penetrate soft body armor by sheer velocity.
However… there are only two guns that shoot it…with the pistol variety being the FN Five-SeveN.
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
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 ’20s to the ’90s.
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
Big brother to the .38 Special, it’s slightly longer and more powerful.
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.
Or if nothing but half-inch diameter pistol rounds will do…Best .50 Caliber Cartridges.
These are just some of the most common handgun calibers you’ll see out there. Of course, there are all sorts of calibers that exist that didn’t make the list.
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.
Want to further your gun learning journey? Check out my Handgun Course.