As a full-time firearms instructor, I get daily questions from beginning shooters about the best caliber for concealed carry.People new to carrying a gun on a daily basis have lots of questions about how bullets work and want to choose the most effective firearm they can carry.
I went through the same learning phase myself.As a rookie cop who decided to carry a gun off-duty (which isn’t as common as you might think), I obsessed over my personal firearms selection.I started off with a .38 snub because I could carry it as a backup gun on my ankle while working as well as a primary gun for off duty carry.I quickly realized that, while easy to carry, I couldn’t shoot it very well.Money was tight and I couldn’t afford another gun for awhile, so I defaulted to carrying a gun I had owned since a teenager… a S&W Model 19 .357 Magnum with a four inch barrel.I carried it in an inside-the-waistband holster for more than a year before I got a raise and could buy another gun.
That new gun was a Smith and Wesson Model 3913 9mm.I loved the gun, but I was worried about the stopping power failures I heard were prevalent with the 9mm cartridge.I upgraded to a .40.Shortly thereafter I moved to a bigger .40.Then I upgraded to a .45.I’ve carried just about every caliber available over the years as I stayed on the quest to find the perfect concealed carry caliber.
All the while, I was keeping data on the results of every shooting I could find.I went to autopsies.I talked to gunfight survivors andread police reports.I wanted to put to rest all the rumor and propaganda I had seen about handgun effectiveness.I would prove once and for all which cartridge was the “best” and I would carry that until my research identified something better.
I collected data on nearly 2000 shootings over the course of 10 years of research. For this study, I excluded all cases of accidental shootings or suicides.Every shot in the data set took place during a military battle or an altercation with a criminal.
I looked at many different factors, but the variables I think are most important are the following:
1) What percentage of people shot stopped their aggressive action after one hit to the torso or head?
2) On average, how many shots did it take to stop the attacker?
3) What percentage of attackers did not stop no matter how many rounds they took?
Here’s what I found:
|Caliber||% stopped after 1 shot||How many shots to stop||% that did not stop|
|.22 (short, long, long rifle)||60%||1.38||31%|
|.32 (ACP and long)||72%||1.52||40%|
Before I get into too much detail about the results of my study, a littleeducation in handgun ballistics is required.
There is nothing magical about a handgun bullet.Handgun bullets don’t explode inside the person shot.They don’t knock someone off his feet.They merely poke holes and cut flesh.Obviously, where those holes are located on the body is of prime importance.If the bullets don’t hit a vital structure, they can’t physically incapacitate someone.Besides the location of the wound, the other important factor to consider is the size of the hole.A bigger hole is statistically more likely to hit something vital than a smaller hole, all other factors being equal.
No matter where the bullet hits or what caliber is used, a person can only stop an aggressor three ways:
1) A Psychological stop- This is when the attacker stops fighting because of the pain or the shock from the bullet wound.Oftentimes, criminals will stop their attack even though they weren’t physically incapacitated by the bullet.They just don’t want to be shot anymore!
Even though it happens on a regular basis, we can’t rely on this mechanism to reliably stop an attacker.Many criminals are mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.Those factors diminish the body’s pain response.We just can’t count on the attacker feeling the pain of the bullet wound and stopping his attack.
2) A Central Nervous System Hit- If your bullet hits the bad guy’s brain or upper spinal cord; it is likely to be immediately incapacitating, and generally fatal.The only problem with relying on this mechanism to achieve a stopping of hostilities is the fact that the brain and spinal cord are relatively hard to hit under the pressure of someone shooting back at you.Besides being small targets, they are relatively well protected by dense bone which will occasionally deflect bullets.
3) Loss of consciousness due to blood loss-If you poke enough holes in vital organs and blood vessels, you will facilitate bleeding.Depending on the number and size of the holes, a person can go unconscious in a matter of seconds or stay in the fight for several minutes.
Let’s combine the knowledge we have about handgun ballistics and the results I obtained in my study to discuss some of the issues involved in your choice of the best caliber for your concealed carry pistol…
I think the most interesting statistic presented is the percentage of people who stopped with one shot to the torso or head. There wasn’t much of a variation between calibers. Between the most common defensive calibers (.38, 9mm, .40, and .45) there was a spread of only eight percentage points. No matter what gun you are shooting, you can only expect around half of the people you shoot to be immediately incapacitated by your first hit.
The average number of rounds until incapacitation was also remarkably similar between calibers. All the common defensive calibers required around 2 rounds on average to incapacitate. Additionally, all four common defensive cartridges have very similar failure rates. If you look at the percentage of shootings that did not result in incapacitation, the numbers are almost identical. The .38, 9mm, .40, and .45 all had failure rates of between 13% and 17%.
Although this study showed that the percentages of people stopped with one shot are similar between almost all handgun cartridges, there is more to the story.Take a look at the percentage of people who did not stop no matter how many rounds were fired into them.The lower caliber rounds (.22, .25, .32) had a failure rate that was roughly two to three times that of the higher caliber rounds.
What matters even more than caliber is shot placement. Across all calibers, if you break down the incapacitations based on where the bullet hit you will find some useful information.
Head shots = 75% immediate incapacitation
Torso shots = 41% immediate incapacitation
Extremity shots (arms and legs) = 14% immediate incapacitation.
No matter which caliber you use, you have to hit something important in order to stop the bad guy!
How do we use this information to choose a defensive handgun?Here are some things to consider:
- The “mouse gun” calibers (.22, .25, and .32), while easy to carry, have a very high failure rate as compared to the larger caliber cartridges.If the criminal is likely to be affected by a “psychological stop,” these rounds are as good as any others.I believe that’s why they compare favorably to the larger calibers in the statistic regarding the percentage of people stopped with one shot.Those are likely psychological stops rather than physical incapacitations.
While any gun is better than no gun, I can’t advise you to carry pistols under.35 caliber.They work any many cases, but if you do happen to encounter a motivated attacker, they are far more likely to fail.
- The .380 seems fine from a ballistic standpoint.My only concern is the general reliability of the pistols.They just don’t run as well as the larger guns.Some of the really small .380s are also difficult to hold on to when firing.That contributes to slower subsequent shots.Knowing that we are likely to need at least two shots to stop an attacker, this is somewhat of a concern.
If you have a reliable .380 pistol (200-300 rounds between malfunctions) and you can shoot it fast and accurately, I would consider it the bare minimum defensive cartridge for concealed carry.
- The .38 Special and .357 Magnum are adequate and superior cartridges respectively.That should make you revolver fans quite happy.My only concern is the rate of fire.Some of the smaller .38 snubs are difficult to shoot well because of their diminutive size, horrible sights and tiny factory grips.The .357 Magnum in a short barrel has very stout recoil and a lot of muzzle blast.Both of these factors make for slower follow-up shots.
Like the .380, I would only carry these two calibers if I had a revolver that I could shoot both fast and accurately.
- That leaves the 9mm, .40, and .45.Go back and take a look at the chart again.There is a remarkable similarity in performance between these three rounds.They all stop about half of the attackers with one shot and have a failure rate of 13%-15%.
Despite all the bluster you see on the internet about not carrying a defensive pistol unless the caliber “starts with a 4,” the .40 and .45 do not perform significantly better than the 9mm in real life gunfights.
That doesn’t mean that the .40 or .45 is a bad cartridge, it just means that these cartridges don’t live up to their hype.While at the top of the heap, the .45 is far from a stopper 19 out of 20 times as Col. Cooper asserted.
I would feel completely comfortable carrying any of these three cartridges as my primary defensive weapon.Rather than worrying about the inconsequential differences in stopping power, I would focus on finding the most reliable and accurate firearm I could carry in any of those three calibers.