Choosing the Ideal Prepper Pistol Part 3 – Caliber Issues When Choosing Your Pistol

Pistol calibers and cartridges come in many sizes.  L to R = .22 LR, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, 5.7x28
Pistol calibers and cartridges come in many sizes. L to R = .22 LR, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, 5.7×28

This is the third part of a four-part article series on how to select the ideal pistol for preppers.  If you’ve directly arrived at this page, may we suggest you start reading from the first part – The Most Important Selection Criteria When Choosing an Ideal Pistol and then the second part – Four More Selection Criteria to Choose the Ideal Pistol.  Of course, when you’ve finished this third part, we hope you’ll move on to Part 4 – Less Important Issues, and an Ideal Pistol Recommendation.  Your reward, at the end of the fourth part, is our suggested ideal pistol choice.

Nothing is a surer way to irrevocably change lifelong friends into forever enemies than to get into a discussion/argument with them about the ‘best’ caliber for a pistol.

Pistols themselves are creatures of compromise, and the calibers they shoot doubly so.  No pistol is as good as a rifle, and no pistol caliber is as good as a rifle caliber.  As the saying goes – a pistol is the gun you use to fight your way to your rifle.

Some people however cling to the belief that there’s a magic caliber endowed with special powers.  There isn’t.  These people are usually the people with ‘tricked out’ pistols with lots of accessories and gadgets, in an ever more desperate effort to avoid the one issue of paramount importance when it comes to effectively using any type of pistol, and of any caliber.  What is that one issue (and why isn’t it on our list of twelve issues)?  That issue is personal training.

No amount of accessories, lasers, lights, sights, no caliber choice, nor anything else will compensate for simple basic training in pistolcraft.

But, we’ve promised you a discussion on calibers, so here goes.

8a.  Caliber – Lethality

The biggest problem surrounding discussions/debates/arguments about pistol calibers is that all pistol calibers are inadequate.

None are good.  All are bad, and as for some being less bad or more bad than others, it really doesn’t matter all that much.  There is no ‘silver bullet’ caliber or cartridge that will guarantee one shot stops.  It is silly to try to find a cartridge that will provide this; it is better to accept the limitation of all pistol calibers and to simply build that into your gun-fighting strategy, with an embedded understanding that you’ll always need to land multiple shots on any adversary to be sure of taking them out of the fight.

The subject is surrounded with huge amounts of emotion, but extremely little truly meaningful scientific research.  While some people will cite ‘studies’ in an attempt to ‘prove’ their opinion, there are so many variables associated with the effects of a person being hit by a bullet as to make all of these studies statistically insignificant and their conclusions invalid.

A year or two back the FBI came out with a new study that reversed some of their earlier findings – the new study said that caliber was less important than shot placement.  At last, they were apparently ending their hopeless question for the perfect bullet, and instead recognizing that the most important thing in a gunfight is not the bullets being fired, but the person doing the shooting.

In other words, instead of going for the biggest badass bullet you can find, go for the one that is easiest to shoot.

But if you want some scientific analysis, here’s a bit of simplified explanation.

First, all pistol bullets are ballistically inadequate.  Unlike high-powered rifle bullets, they travel too slowly to impart hypersonic shock waves into the target they hit.  Hypersonic shock waves can scramble the internal organs of a person, and can even potentially travel up into the brain as well, and significantly increase the chance of a one shot stop, no matter where on the body your shot lands.

But for pistol bullets, with negligible or no hypersonic shock effect, the majority of their lethality comes from hopefully damaging vital organs as they pass through the target.

Now for the main point.  There’s almost no difference in size between most common bullet calibers.  The length of the bullets doesn’t matter much at all, the key measurement is their diameter.

To make it easy to appreciate, let’s look at the diameter measurements in millimeters.  A 9mm bullet is right around 9mm in diameter (as is, also, a .38 or a .357 cal revolver cartridge, and the .380 semi-auto cartridge too).  A .40 cal is right around 10mm and so too is a 10mm round, while the .45 cal is just over 11mm in diameter (and a .44 magnum just under 11mm).

So the biggest bullets are only 2mm – less than 1/10th of an inch – bigger in diameter than the smallest ones.  See what we mean – bullet size is not as big a differentiator of different calibers as you might think.

All pistol bullets are small, and even if they have expanding hollow-points which increase their effective diameter as they create a wound channel through a target, the respective size of the different calibers remains closely similar.  So the statistical likelihood of the biggest bullet hitting a vital organ is only maybe 20% greater than that of the smallest bullet.

A bullet’s weight and speed/energy is important if it hits solid bone – heavier bullets with more energy are more likely to break through the bone and continue traveling, lighter and slower bullets are more likely to be deflected or stopped by bone.  On the other hand, a bullet being deflected off bone and ‘ricocheting’ internally in a person’s body might still do as much harm as a bullet going through the bone and continuing on out the other side.  So it is probably fair to say that bullets with more energy are mildly better than bullets with less energy, but shot placement is always the overriding factor for effectively stopping an attacker.

But if the bullet goes right through the body without encountering any bone, its weight and energy really counts for nothing.  All you’ve done is drill a hole through soft tissue.

Back to the FBI study, and remembering the inadequacy of all pistol calibers, the chances are that you’re going to need to shoot any attacker multiple times – or, to be more precise, you are going to shoot at the attacker many times in the hope of scoring several effective hits to take them out of the fight.

You will achieve this goal – taking them out of the fight – more speedily with a caliber that you can more readily control, which has less recoil so there is less recovery time before your next shot, and more rounds landing on target, and more quickly.

To give a ‘for example’, maybe in a given time frame you can fire six ‘easy to shoot’ rounds and score two hits, or fire four ‘hard to shoot’ rounds and score one hit.  You’re getting twice as many rounds on target, and probably better placed on the target.

Some adversaries will cease their aggression when they see your pistol.  Others will cease when you shoot (even though you miss them).  Others will cease as soon as they are hit, whether it be disabling/life threatening or not.  Only a very few will continue to attack you after you’ve scored your first hit on them.

So you want a pistol that looks ‘real’ rather than a toy to get the first category of people out of the fight, one which you can quickly deploy and credibly shoot, whether the round lands on target or not, to get the second category of people out of the fight, and one which will land rounds on the target quickly to get the third category of people out of the fight.

As for the fourth category of person, you’ll want to be able to land multiple hits on the target as quickly as possible.

All four of these needs argue in favor of the most controllable caliber, not the most ‘lethal’ (a concept which we don’t believe has any meaning with pistol rounds).  If you’re looking for genuine one-shot stop capabilities, carry a rifle.

In other words, for pistols, the best choice for your group as a whole is probably 9mm.

A Very Vivid Example of Pistol Caliber Inadequacy

No matter how much one attempts to belabor the point, many people will stubbornly claim, without a shred of evidence to back up their unchangeable opinion, that their preferred caliber is the best one out there.

Can we offer a real-life example of how pistol calibers are inadequate.  A police officer shot at an assailant 33 times (he only had 37 rounds with him), and very credibly had 14 of his rounds hit the attacker.  Six of the shots were in locations normally considered as quickly fatal.  And – get this, guys – he was using a .45 caliber pistol, almost certainly with high quality hollow point ammunition.

But it was only after two head shots that the attacker stopped his attack.  And even with his 14 injuries, six certainly fatal, the attacker didn’t die until some time subsequently, in hospital.

So – 14 hits, six of them ‘high lethality’ placements, with the caliber that many people consider to be excellent at one shot stops.  The bad guy wasn’t even on drugs, but was merely a determined opponent.  Still feel good about your pistol’s ‘magical’ ability to solve problems?

Note also what the police officer (a master firearms instructor and a sniper on his department’s SWAT team) learned from the encounter.  He has replaced with .45 caliber pistol with a 9mm, so as to conveniently carry more ammunition.  His conclusion is that more rounds of any caliber is the best approach to prevailing in future gunfights.

You’d be well advised to consider a similar strategy.

8b.  Caliber – Other Issues

The alleged lethality of a cartridge is a minor issue, with controllability being a much more important issue, as we’ve just discussed.  There are other issues, too.

You want a gun that is chambered in a common caliber, one that is easy to source, likely to be sometimes offered in trade, even in a future adverse scenario, and one which is relatively inexpensive.

Ideally it should also be a caliber that can readily and safely be reloaded, and one which is easy on the gun it is fired through.  The very high pressures of the .40 cal cartridge disqualify it under these two parameters.

Lastly, although we say that no caliber is good enough to guarantee one-shot stops, we will concede that some calibers are worse than others.  Specifically, we suggest you do not consider semi-auto pistols in a .380 or smaller caliber, or revolvers in anything less than .38 caliber.

Summary of Caliber Related Issues

Both 9mm and .45 cal are common rounds and well suited for personal defense.

9mm has the added advantages of being smaller, lighter, less expensive, and with slightly less recoil.  Your gun, if chambered for 9mm, will hold many more rounds than if chambered for .45.

So we’d generally recommend this as the best compromise caliber for your prepping pistols.

But if you insist on a big caliber, we’d not stand in the way of you getting a .45 instead of a 9mm – we have both ourselves.

Please Continue Reading

This is the third part of a four-part article series on how to select the ideal pistol for preppers.  If you directly arrived at this page, may we suggest you now read the first two parts – The Most Important Selection Criteria When Choosing an Ideal Pistol and  Four More Selection Criteria to Choose the Ideal Pistol.  Of course, we hope you’ll also move on to Part 4 – Less Important Issues, and an Ideal Pistol Recommendation.

Your reward, at the end of the fourth part, is our suggested ideal pistol choice.

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