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: 4 to 7 cents

.380 ACP

.380
.380 ACP

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.

  • Bullet Weight: 90-95 gr
  • Velocity: 1000 ft/s
  • Energy: 275 J
  • Price Per Round: 25 to 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: 17 to 20 cents

What’s your take on the ubiquitous 9mm?

Readers' Ratings

4.58/5 (80)

Your Rating?

.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 “40 short & weak”.

  • 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 (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.”  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: 25 to 30 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 energy.

  • 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: 35 to 40 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 Spl 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

22 Leave a Reply

  • Terry Troutt

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

    1 second 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.

    4 months 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.

    5 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.

      5 months ago
  • Common Knowledge

    Your clueless about the 10mm.

    6 months ago
    • David, PPT Editor

      You're* You're welcome :)

      6 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!

        5 days 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

    1 year 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?

        1 year ago
    • dsfnfksek

      Don't do it

      1 year ago
      • Tyler Wasserman

        Don't do What?

        1 year 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!

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks! I'll check up on the numbers.

      1 year ago
  • David Schmitt, Ph.D.

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

    1 year 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)

      1 year ago
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