We love to debate which caliber is best for a defensive handgun, and that’s been going on ever since practical revolvers became widely available. Endless testing, theories, fashion and ego drive these debates far more than real-world performance in actual gunfights. When such data is collated and presented the studies their results are too often disregarded in favor of cult-of-personality driven opinions, anecdotes cherry-picked to support a personal prejudice and a blatant disregard for factual data.
One of the most famous 20th C. gunfighters used a .38 special. Others used .45s, .357s, etc. A couple of these folks insisted that nothing but their personal choice worked worth a damn, yet somehow these fellows all survived multiple gunfights and came out on top regardless of their caliber-of-choice, weapon or the success of other contemporary gunfighters that made different choices.
These men were very often less well-armed than those they faced. Care to guess why they prevailed regardless?
A Dirty Little Secret…
When I served in the army in the early 1980s we used 1911a1 pistols, most of them still composed of WW2 leftovers. They were pretty sad and worn out. We did not think particularly well of them, but guess what? Nobody really cared. They worked well enough and in the grand scheme of things they were so unlikely to ever be used that no one fussed about them. We had much, much bigger problems.
Yes, the 1911a1 served for 70+ years, but this wasn’t because they were the best of all possible pistols. It was because it was going to be a huge, expensive pain in the ass to replace them and pistols just didn’t matter enough to be bothered until we had to replace them. The 1911a1s were worn out, we were running out of spare parts and we had a treaty obligation to standardize the 9x19mm that we couldn’t put off indefinitely.
The 1911a1 is an ingenious design and one of the all-time greats among service pistols. In updated form it’s still an excellent tool. But a military service pistol is literally the least important weapon system in the arsenal of any military force. Today there are lighter, more capable, more versatile, cheaper and more reliable platforms for that use.
…But We’re Not The Army
OK, some of you are, but most of us are civilians, and rather than an almost irrelevant last-ditch ‘Hail Mary’ a handgun is often our first line of defense as individuals or law enforcement. Our choice of weapon, caliber etc. is significantly more important. Yes, the odds that you will need a gun are pretty small, but if you do need it you will need it very badly indeed. You need an effective weapon that you are comfortable with and shoot well. So which caliber should you choose?
I think that it is possible, even likely, that all things being equal some service calibers may be objectively better than others. The problem is all things are never equal; there are a huge number of variables in a gun fight. Motivation, determination, skill, training, lighting conditions, clothing, numbers of opponents… the list goes on and on. Among the variables involved in a gunfight the caliber of your weapon may be one of the least important factors.
For us civilians the sole and only purpose of a gunfight is to make the other guy stop whatever he’s doing that makes it necessary to shoot him… and preferably survive, of course. With all the variables in play it’s not impossible that your choice of weapon or caliber will play a critical role, but it’s not likely to be a decider unless you choose very stupidly indeed.
There are a lot of very good guns out there in calibers that, in real life, all seem to work about as well as each other. Pick what works for you; a weapon you’ll actually have with you, a gun that is reliable and that you shoot well. Learn the gun and it’s manual of arms inside and out. Importantly you need to pick a caliber you will actually practice with. If you don’t reload your own ammo that means something commonly available. OK, obviously at this moment none of them are easily available, but that will change. Knock on wood.
Then, when all is said and done, remember that guns don’t win gunfights. People do. Setting aside luck, how do they do it?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one…
You Are the Weapon, the Gun is Just a Tool
Understanding the gun is only the beginning; you need to understand your primary weapon; know your own strengths, weaknesses and limitations. Have a realistic appraisal of your abelites, or what you can and can’t do with your weapon of choice. Plan to work around those limitations.
We all have very different lives and circumstances. Some of us can carry a full-size service pistol in our daily lives. Some of us can only manage to carry a very small pistol. That’s fine; carry the best tool you can that’s compatible with your needs and situation. Plan to minimize the effect of weaknesses and maximize your strengths.
If you know you can’t deploy your weapon quickly don’t try; instead focus on how to create opportunities where speed will not be a deciding factor. If you know you shoot poorly past a given range think about how you might get within that range in a variety of scenarios. Understand what you’ve got and what you can do, then plan accordingly.
Yep. Tactics, Training and Doctrine. If they’re bad you’ll probably lose. If they’re good you have a much better chance of making it through.
But What if That’s Not Enough?
Then it’s not enough. Look, there are situations where you just aren’t going to win, and anyone that tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. A drunk driver plows into your café. A brick falls on your head. You get hit by lightning. Or maybe there’s just too many of them. Sometimes excrement occurs, and all your training and planning just isn’t enough. Get over it. There are things we can control and things we can’t… but chance favors the prepared mind, and having a plan is always better than not having one. Even if the plan goes sideways.
There’s a saying in certain circles, “If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin.’ By all means cheat if you can, and do whatever you reasonably can to stack the odds in your favor. This isn’t a game; ‘playing fair’ is not only not required, it’s stupid. Another old saying is that, ‘A man that finds himself in a fair fight has made a serious error in judgement.’ Plan on how to not find yourself in that fight. Be aware of your surroundings, keep an eye on suspicious persons or activities. Try to see the fight coming so you can, if possible, get out of it’s way. Failing that seeing it coming gives you the best chance to be prepared.
The advice often given is to carry the largest, most powerful gun you reasonably can. Given the caveat that ‘reasonably can‘ includes being able to use it effectively it’s not bad advice. After all why wouldn’t you stack the odds? It’s life or death; you’d be a fool not to.
Same thing with modern defensive ammunition. Sure, if you do your part even ball will probably do the job, but if using good hollow-points will increase the odds in your favor, even a little, then you definitely should use them. Provided that they are suitable to your weapon of choice and it functions with them, of course. Every bit helps and any advantage is worth employing if it’s practical to do so.
Stop Worrying About Caliber
Anything in the range of ‘service calibers’ will do the job if you do yours. For civilian self-defense that means anything between .380 ACP and .45 ACP. Find what works for you and your life, then train with it. Learn as much as you can, think it through and decide what the best choice or choices are for you and your own unique circumstances. Be aware of the compromises imposed by your choices and incorporate them into your personal plans. Because that’s what going to keep you alive if anything can.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 10 June 2021