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:
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
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.
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: 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.
53 Leave a Reply
For personal protection I use an old .32 revolver. I dip the hollow point bullets into a poisonous substance then seal the hole with paraffin. One of these bullets always kills.
Why was ACP started, what's the Automatic Colt Pistol really referring too?
No .45 Colt... no .44 Magnum... no .41 Magnum..... the "definitive guide" is just a list of handgun calibers for urban residents who will never need to shoot anything.
No 30 Mauser pistol cartridge either! They keep reinventing the wheel, when there are plenty of good wheels still out there!
The only reason to carry a 9mm instead of a .380 is to make a hole completely through the perp instead of just messing up his innards. I carry a .45. I wanna stop the perp right effing now not just poke holes in him.
Amen to that!
Your actually contradiction full metal jacket affliction because the slug that goes thru clean likely doesn't damage as much as the one that stays inside, hops around like a pinball. But certainly you're right and hope you can take jest. Yes. The .45 and a stop sign is more powerful than a el loco -motive.
Yes i can take a joke and maybe I overstated my position a bit. But I still carry a .45.
Is there a definitive guide for what is a pistol caliber? 5.7 is on this list, but is it a pistol caliber because a few pistols are made to accept this round? Or was the 5.7 first designed for the FIVE-SEVEN? We've been discussing this at work, and we cannot figure out what makes a round a pistol caliber. The .357 Sig is necked down, so it can't be a straight wall. .45 ACP uses a large primer. What or who decides what a pistol caliber is?
It mostly comes down to what it is most often chambered in. .357 Magnum is by far most common in revolvers, but you can also get lever-action rifles in it. 9mm is by far mostly in pistols and was designed for pistols but 9mm SMGs are almost as old as 9mm is.
5.7 was designed for the P90, the Five-Seven came shortly after.
Wheres the 44 mag, this is a joke
Hey, Eric - You had replied in a personal message back to me a few short months ago about addressing the .327 Federal Magnum. I’m still waiting. Thanks, Bro.
What is a .45 GAP??
A mistake Glock would rather the world forgot about.
Is the .357 Sig too rare to be discussed in this thread? It would be interesting to see sales figures for .357M, .327 Fed, 10mm, and 5.7FN. Due to some LE usage of the .357 Sig I suspect it's usage is similar to some of those other rounds
What about specs for the '5.56x.45mm / .223'; Bullet Weight, Velocity, Energy, and Price Per Round
That is in our Rifle Caliber Guide!
I been around a long time (3 times your age) and to say a round is on its way out.... well, just stick around. The 40 has been in and out over decades. The 45 was the stuff back in the day and then it was and is 9mm now.
9 is the cheapest so it’s popular. The 40 may slow down but it’s not done. The winds will change like they always do.
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?
I noticed that as well. Velocities for 180 gr. 10mm is more in the 1250 fps range with a muzzle energy of about 620 ftlbs
The 10mm in the article is a weak load; probably federal american eagle
"[.22 LR] these tiny rounds apparently have a habit of bouncing around inside the body" -- I trust this was sarcasm?
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.
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!
So glad we could help out!!
Why don't people talk more about the .30 carbine cartridge in a revolver?
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.
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.
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.
That was a thumbs up to the .327 Fed Mag, BTW.
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.
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.
Energy is in Joules, not ft/pounds. 9x19mm commonly falls between 480 and 620 Joules. That would be between 350 and 450ish foot-pounds.
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.
Your clueless about the 10mm.
You're welcome :)
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!
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.
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
Thanks for that, Travis!
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!
Don't do it
Don't do What?
Hi Tyler, everything you asked for is here! Beginner's Guide to Guns
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?
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!
Thanks! I'll check up on the numbers.
Excellent site. Excellent format: informative, parsimonious, clean, not a lot of hype & bravado.
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!
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)