Handgun Calibers [The Definitive Guide]

Quickly learn the pros and cons of common handgun/pistol calibers. We’ll also cover average price, recoil, and recommended self-defense ammo for each.

Handgun Caliber Smallest to Largest
Handgun Caliber Smallest to Largest

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.”

Parts of a Bullet Cartridge
Parts of a Bullet Cartridge

Handgun Caliber Guide

Before we just jump into it, let’s go over some of the terms we’ll be using to determine the pros and cons of a bullet.

  • 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.

Ready?  Let’s go over 9 of the most common calibers!

.22LR

.22LR
.22LR

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.

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.

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

.380 ACP

.380
.380 ACP

This small round is known as the “three-eighty” ACP (auto Colt pistol) but sometimes called the 9mm Short.  It’s very popular as the caliber of choice for small pocket pistols but its effectiveness is debatable.

  • Bullet Weight: 90-95 gr
  • Velocity: 1000 ft/s
  • Energy: 275 J
  • Price Per Round: ~30 cents

9mm

9mm
9mm

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.  Mild in recoil, affordable for lots of training, and small enough to have a good-sized magazine (~17 for full-sized handguns).  Plenty of flavors of regular and self-defense ammo that are very effective (Best 9mm Ammo: Self-Defense & Range).

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

.40 S&W

.40 S&W
.40 S&W

The “forty” Smith & Wesson is a very popular round with more recoil than the 9mm.  It is a shortened version of the 10mm round so sometimes it is derisively known as the “short & weak,” although it is plenty powerful in my mind.

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

.45 ACP

.45 ACP
.45 ACP

A big caliber that fuels the venerable 1911 pistol.  The “forty-five” ACP (auto 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.”  Good amount of recoil compared to the 9mm and .40 but feels more like a push because of its slower-moving big bullet.

  • Bullet Weight: 230 gr
  • Velocity: 900-1000 ft/s
  • Energy: 500-700 J
  • Price Per Round: ~40 cents

10mm

.40 S&W vs 10mm
.40 S&W vs 10mm

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 stopping power.

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

.38 Special

.38 SPL
.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 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.

  • Bullet Weight: 110-200 gr
  • Velocity: 675-980 ft/s
  • Energy: 200-320 J
  • Price Per Round: ~50 cents

.357 Magnum

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

Big brother to the .38 Special, it’s slightly longer and more powerful.  You can shoot the .38 in a .357 revolver, but don’t go the other way around!  Great reputation for stopping power.

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

Even Bigger Calibers

Handgun Caliber Smallest to Largest
Handgun Caliber Smallest to Largest

So that last one above is the 5.56x45mm or .223cal rifle round.  It’s the standard ammo of the AR-15 so I just wanted to show you guys a comparison of common handgun calibers to one of the most common rifle calibers (55 gr bullet but flies at 2500+ ft/sec)

You probably want to see some really big caliber pistol cartridges so here you go…

.357 Magnum vs Even Bigger Calibers
.357 Magnum vs Even Bigger Calibers

Conclusion

These are just what we think are the most common handgun calibers you’ll see out there.  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 this other article.  Or if you just want to see our suggestions for the best ammo.

7.62 208 gr Ballistic Tip vs 175 HPBT
7.62 208 gr Ballistic Tip vs 175 HPBT

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32isthebestDavid, PPT EditorKenny DCommon KnowledgeEric Hung Recent comment authors
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32isthebest
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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.

Kenny D
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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… Read more »

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

Common Knowledge
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Common Knowledge

Your clueless about the 10mm.

David, PPT Editor
Admin

You’re*

You’re welcome 🙂

Lisa K.
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Lisa K.

Nice visual

Greg Krest PhD
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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.

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