Does Caliber Even Matter?

I’m planning on doing a series of tests to explore the question of whether and/or how much caliber matters when choosing a firearm, but until then, I wanted to take a moment to explore the bigger question…

Does The Caliber Of Your Gun Matter?  At All?

I have spent an absurd amount of time, and money, and effort, on testing ammo, trying to find what performs best from my various firearms, especially the little guns, and sharing that info for anyone else who may be interested in the same.

And I’ll be the first to tell you — obsessing over caliber and hunting for “magic” bullets is the least important factor in armed self defense. I do consider it a factor, but it pales in comparison to the other more important factors.

There are no reliable statistics out there, that I know of, that assess the question of whether or not the caliber of a gun made a difference in any specific defensive encounter.  Specifically, there’s no comprehensive data on a failed defensive gun use where a medical expert could point out a particular gunshot wound and say “see, if this person had been shot with a .40 or .45, that would have ended the fight right here and now, but because they used a 9mm the perpetrator wasn’t stopped.”  Singular incidents exist, definitely — perhaps the most famous being the 9mm bullet used in the ill-fated 1986 FBI Miami Shootout.  In that case, the 9mm was on a path to hit Platt’s heart, but stopped just an inch short.  Had it hit his heart, it may have incapacitated him much quicker.  That was a clear case where using a different type of bullet may have changed the outcome of the fight, or using a more powerful caliber may have changed the outcome, but — we don’t know that it would have changed the outcome.  And the fact that I had to go back to a case that happened 29 years ago, just to bring up an example, should point out just how huge the lack of data is on this subject.

What Factors Do Matter?

Not all defensive gun uses result in shots fired.  Not all shots that are fired hit the target.  And not all shots that hit the target, do any significant damage.  There are many instances where the caliber of your gun won’t matter at all.  Really.

Here’s how it breaks down, as far as I have been able to ascertain:

1) A large percentage of encounters end as soon as the bad guy sees that you are armed. Merely brandishing your firearm is frequently enough to convince the bad guy to leave you alone.  Exactly what percentage this is, we don’t know and will never know accurately, because many of these encounters are never reported. It’s impossible to gather accurate data if someone won’t share their experience, and if no shots are fired, sometimes folks don’t feel like sharing that story with the police. John Lott has done extensive research and conducted surveys on defensive gun uses, and he estimates that 95% to 98% of defensive gun encounters end with no shots being fired at all; just the sight of a gun causes the bad guy to change his mind and disengage.  There are other surveys out there that put the number lower; I’ve seen estimates of 70% to 80%.  Now, there’s no real way for us to know for absolutely certain what the number really is, so I’m going to take a wild guess at the middle ground and use 90%.  I’m not asserting that this number is accurate, only that it represents the middle ground between the high and low end of surveys that have been taken, and because no hard data actually exists, we cannot truly know what the true number is anyway.  So, for purposes of continuing the discussion, I’m going with 90%.  If we use this 90% figure, we could conclude that in at least 90% of defensive encounters, caliber doesn’t matter at all and makes no difference in the outcome of the encounter.  The bad guy turned and ran whether the crime victim was using a .22lr mini-revolver or a .44 Magnum.  Just the sight of a gun was enough to end the encounter.  Heck, odds are pretty good that the gun wouldn’t even have needed to have been loaded!

2) For the remaining 10% of encounters, the crime victim needed to do more than just show that s/he had a gun.  This means the trigger was pulled and  a shot was fired.  Now, presuming that a shot was fired towards the bad guy, we know that some percentage of those encounters will end immediately whether the bad guy is hit or not. As far as I know, we have no way of knowing what that percentage is, but surely there is some percentage of the bad-guy population who, when faced with the sight of their intended victim brandishing a gun, might think “oh, that’s not a real gun” or “no way this guy will have the guts to actually shoot me” or whatever.  For whatever reason, the sight of a gun is not enough to deter this particular crop of bad guys, and they may continue to attack — right up until their intended victim pulls the trigger. At that point, some percentage of the bad guys will turn tail and run, even if they weren’t hit.  Now, what percentage of bad guys will see a gun, but continue to try to mug/rob/rape/kidnap/etc you anyway, but will turn tail and flee when that gun gets fired? I have no earthly idea.  I haven’t seen any data on this, I haven’t seen any studies that have broken it down to this degree.  Simply put, I have no idea at all.  I just presume that it is logical and reasonable to think that there must be some percentage of bad guys who are dissuaded by the flash and noise of a gunshot, and will disengage because of it.  But there is no data (that I know of).  So, even though I am loathe to do it, I am left with no choice: I simply must make a random number up off the top of my head.  Let’s go with 1/3. Now, I have no idea whatsoever if that’s right, or close, or wildly wrong. I just know that we need some sort of number in order to continue exploring this question, and — even if this number is wildly wrong, I think you’ll see by the final conclusion that it really doesn’t matter all that much.  This final conclusion won’t and can’t be a a proper scientific conclusion because we simply do not have the data to go off of, so — we’re taking wild guesses here. So, in this hypothetical, wild-guess narrative, maybe 1/3 of the bad guys who didn’t flee at the sight of a gun, would indeed turn and flee when someone takes a shot at them, even if that shot misses. Which, for purposes of this discussion, means (once again) caliber doesn’t matter in these scenarios.

Adding together the 90% of bad guys who disengaged at the sight of a gun, with the 3.3% (1/3 of the remaining 10%) who were dispelled at the sight and sound of the trigger being pulled, that puts us at 93.3% of potential defensive gun uses ending with caliber not mattering at all (even though, again, these numbers bear no basis in reality, because we cannot know the true statistics, because they are not reported).

3)  That brings us to the third class of encounters — ones where the bad guy actually gets shot. Now, in our (admittedly inaccurate) tally here, only 6.7% of armed encounters are going to get this far, because in the other 93.3%, no shot needed to be fired. So what happens when a bad guy gets shot, by ANY bullet, of ANY caliber, whether it’s a hollowpoint or a frangible or an FMJ, whether it’s from a .500 S&W or a .22LR or something in-between? According to my evaluation of Greg Ellifritz’s “An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power“, the numbers are pretty consistent — approximately 60% of people who get shot, give up immediately.  According to Ellifritz’s data, approximately 60% of the encounters ended with one shot being fired, almost regardless of what handgun was used.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s 9mm or .357 Magnum or .40 S&W or 10mm or .44 Magnum or .22LR; the numbers were always in the general ballpark of 60% (ranging from 47% for the 9mm, up to 72% for the .32 ACP, but most calibers came in between 51 and 62%).  It doesn’t matter if the bullet was a hollowpoint or an FMJ or a frangible.  People apparently don’t like getting shot.  Apparently it doesn’t feel good and apparently it’s enough of a shock that they just plain stop right then and there. Now, what we DON’T know, from the data, is how they stop — whether those approximately 60% all drop dead from that one shot, or they faint, or they turn tail and run, or they calmly walk away, or if they put their hands up. Certainly some of this 60% of shooting incidents included all of the above. The data we have doesn’t discern among them. We don’t know WHY they stopped, we just know that they did stop. Updating our statistics, and using 60% as the approximate number of people who were discouraged or forced to stop after a single hit, that means that of the 6.7% of bad guys who actually needed to be shot to stop, 60% of them stopped after one bullet of any kind, so that’s 4.02%. If we add that 4.02% to our prior 93.3%, we’re up to 97.32% of armed defensive encounters where caliber basically did not matter and did not make a difference.

That leaves 2.68% of the encounters where caliber may or may not make a difference.

Stunning, isn’t it?  And, yeah, my numbers may be off — in fact, I guarantee they’re off.  But how far off do they need to be, before it starts to make a difference?  If we used John Lott’s assessment that 98% of encounters ended just by brandishing a weapon, then (keeping all our other numbers the same) that would mean caliber didn’t matter 99.53% of the time.  Or, taking the low end of the estimates (that 70% of encounters ended by brandishing), that would mean caliber didn’t matter 92% of the time.  So, take your pick — caliber mattered either 8% of the time, or 2.68%, or 0.47%.  Whichever you go with, I’m sure you can see we’re basically picking nits at this point.  I’m reasonably comfortable with my middle-of-the pack estimate  of 90%, and that leaves us with 2.68% of the incidents where the caliber of the gun might matter.  But in any of the described scenarios, it should be obvious that the caliber of the gun is not the most important factor when discussing a successful defensive gun encounter.

So let’s look further into those shooting scenarios where caliber may have mattered (meaning, in those 2.68% of encounters, the person didn’t stop just because they were shot with some bullet somewhere in their body, they continued their attack, and needed to be shot multiple times to force them to stop.)  How do we determine whether the caliber mattered or not? Once again, there’s no real way to know.  A person shot with a .22LR through the brain stem will drop instantly; one shot through the thigh with a .45 ACP FMJ may not even show any reaction.  Or they might — they might faint right away.  Here’s the tricky thing: even though we know (from Ellifritz’s data) that there were people who stopped after being shot multiple times, we don’t even know whether or not multiple shots were necessary.  Maybe the first shot was a .22 that hit them in the thigh and didn’t force them to stop, but the second shot went through the brain stem and dropped them immediately. Or, maybe they were shot 21 times by a .40 S&W and wouldn’t stop, and the 22nd shot they were hit with went through their brain and forced them to stop (it’s happened before). Or maybe they were hit with a quick double-tap — maybe they would have stopped after being shot just once, but the good guy hit them with a second shot so quickly that the bad guy didn’t have a chance to stop before being hit with the second bullet.  This might be the case in many police shootings, where multiple officers might unload on a suspect simultaneously — perhaps the suspect would have quit after the first hit, but we can’t know because he was hit with multiple shots before even getting the chance to stop. We don’t know, the data doesn’t specify.  It’s entirely possible that the earlier estimate of about 60% (of people stopping after being shot once, regardless of caliber) is low, because perhaps some percentage of multiple-shot scenarios would have ended after the first shot.

What we do know is that for this last 2.68% of defensive encounters, we’re probably past the point of wondering whether our super-duper-magic-frangible bullet had enough mystical “stopping power”, and we’re into the category of “the bullet had better damage the bad guy’s body enough that they cannot continue to threaten you.” And here’s where we really need to focus on shot placement first, and caliber second.

Shots That Will End A Gunfight

A perfectly placed shot on the central nervous system (one that hits the upper spine or brain stem, or through the major circulatory system organs) WILL, without a doubt, bring a fight to an immediate stop, guaranteed (but if, and only if, the bullet has sufficient power to reach and destroy those organs). If your ammo falls short, there’s nothing that your shot placement can do to make up for that, but as long as your ammo penetrates deep enough to hit those targets, shot placement on those areas will result in an immediate cessation of hostilities.  No human being can continue to attack you if a bullet has damaged their brain stem or upper spinal column.

Additionally, a perfectly placed shot on the major circulatory system organs will absolutely bring the fight to a stop, in short order but not necessarily immediately.  If a bullet damages a major circulatory system organ (such as the heart, or a major artery), blood loss will, sooner or later, cause the bad guy to drop unconscious.  However, once again, the bullet needs to penetrate deep enough to do its job.  A perfectly placed shot that stops 3″ under the skin will likely not force a stop. A deep-penetrating bullet that misses the vital organs and only zings through a shoulder or thigh, will likely not guarantee a stop. A .22LR or 9mm FMJ through the brain may or may not cause a stop. A 9mm JHP through the heart will cause a stop — maybe not instantly, but within a dozen seconds or so the bad guy absolutely will stop, as blood loss causes them to lose consciousness — and in this case, a .45 hollowpoint will probably bring about unconsciousness faster than a .22LR roundnose, even though both would likely eventually cause unconsciousness; bigger holes will result in faster bleedout and a more rapid loss of blood pressure. Shot placement matters a lot, and bullet performance matters, but amazingly enough they only really seem to matter in this last group of 2.68%.

Now, truth be told, the data is inconclusive and unreliable. We don’t know that the group is really 2.68% (even if we assume that the 90% figure for no-shots-fired is accurate, or the 1/3 wild guess for shots-fired-but-missed is accurate). In that last 2.68%, all we know is that they weren’t stopped by being hit by only one shot. What we can’t know is whether they may have chosen to stop after two, or three, or four shots — even if none of those shots were true incapacitating shots! There may be a tough guy out there who takes a 9mm to the shoulder and shrugs it off, but after three or four of them he may decide to throw in the towel. What % of bad guys would this involve? No way of knowing, other than to say it seems reasonable to assume that there is SOME % of them out there.

Here’s the thing — will YOUR defensive gun use be part of that first 90%? Or will it be part of that last 2.68%? I don’t know. You don’t know. Caliber may be irrelevant in your situation — or it may matter. It might. We just don’t know.

Wrapping It Up

After years of studying this subject, these are my conclusions: in a majority or even potentially the vast majority of potential encounters, caliber will not matter. But sometimes it might. And sometimes, it will. What kind of encounter will YOUR defensive encounter be? The odds say caliber won’t matter, but the reality says that if it’s MY life on the line, I want the best chance of surviving I can get. And that’s why I’ve spent so much time testing ammo from a wide variety of guns: because I cannot control what type of bad guy I will encounter, I cannot pick and choose what scenarios will cause him to flee or stop, but I CAN control what goes in my gun, to at least verify that IF I end up in the worst-case scenario, at least I know that my ammo will be capable of doing the job that needs to be done.

Better shot placement can take years of training and effort and, sometimes, luck. Better ammo performance? That’s a matter of just spending $20 and picking up the right box of ammo for the type of gun you’re using. You may or may not be able to control your shot placement, but you definitely can control your ammo choice. In the end it may or may not matter, but if you encounter one of the rare instances where it does matter, then — seems like such an easy thing to fix, why not use stuff that performs properly and gives you that little extra edge?  And that’s why I test for deep-penetrating, proper-performing hollowpoints from even the smallest of pocket guns.

We also know that there’s such a thing as physics.  Larger bullets lead to larger holes.  A smaller bullet (like a 9mm) can be made to expand to a larger size, but there’s always a chance that an expanding bullet might not expand.  It happens.  As fans of the .45 say, a 9mm might expand, but a .45 will never shrink.  Also, bigger bullets can carry more momentum and smash through bigger bones and stay on course better, but that’s not to say that smaller bullets can’t get the job done satisfactorily.  Smaller bullets (9mm for example) can give you greater capacity in your magazine than larger bullets (.45 ACP for example) will — and that may mean you have more chances to put shots on target before the gun runs dry.  These are some of the things that we do know.  But how important are these factors, in the overall scheme of things?  It seems like in 97.32% of the cases, not important at all.  But in 2.68% of the cases, it may matter some.  I doubt it will ever matter a lot.  To what degree it does matter, that’s why I carry a .45 or 10mm whenever possible. Even though I know it won’t matter most of the time, I cannot predict when it will matter, and I want to be as prepared as I can be.  As has often been said, nobody who’s ever been in a gunfight has ever said “man, I wish I’d brought a smaller gun.”

But knowing how little it’s likely to matter, that’s why I also feel plenty adequately armed with even a 9mm pocket pistol, and why I have on occasion carried only a pocket .380.  Because in somewhere around 97% of the potential scenarios that I’ve been able to identify, caliber doesn’t seem to matter.  Being armed, however, does seem to matter very much.  Remember, depending on the estimates you use, between 92% and 99.5% of all defensive gun confrontations were settled just by having been armed at all.  Given those numbers, it seems prudent to reiterate Rule 1 of Gunfighting: Have A Gun.

My advice: carry the biggest, most powerful firearm that you can comfortably conceal and accurately shoot.  If, for you, that means a 10mm, then you will be well prepared to meet any threat that a handgun can be expected to meet.  If, for you, all you can handle is a pocket .380, then go for it — you’ll still be prepared to handle a huge majority of potential defensive gun encounters (if the data is to be believed).  Don’t use this article as justification to carry less gun than you know you should, but do take from it that the first and second priorities are that you should be armed, and that you should be skilled with your firearm.  Everything else (caliber, capacity, particular ammo, draw speed, etc) pales in importance with those first two priorities.  They’re still important, but don’t ignore the bigger picture by getting caught up in the minutia.

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33 thoughts on “Does Caliber Even Matter?

  1. waldengr

    how do you keep doing this, and have any other life? great stuff, once again. covers, “one shot stop”, “energy dump”, “never go with less than point four oh”, “over penetration”, “trick bullets” ….and all that jazz.

    thanks for all you do.


  2. JimH

    Outstanding! Perhaps an executive summary would be: “Caliber doesn’t matter much…until it matters and then it matters a LOT!”

    BTW, about the same %s work out for the usefulness of seat belts in a traffic accident – but I still wear mine – because some accidents are a lot more violent than others and you cannot tell until it is too late to do anything about it 😉

    Keep pluggin’!

    Jim H.

  3. PeteDub

    A victim may stop an attack immediately only by disabling the attacker’s CNS. Even with a fatal round to the heart, for example, an attacker could still have the physiological capacity to continue the attack for long enough and with enough force to do damage, even kill.

    A victim may disable an attacker’s CNS with either a direct hit to the brain or spinal column, or sufficient hydrostatic shock to disable the CNS without a direct hit. Any other self-defense shooting depends on an immediate psychological stop — which, as Dave correctly pointed out, just about any handgun round can achieve.

    If you feel that your self-defense weapon MUST enable you to impose an immediate physiological stop upon an attacker reliably, then you must either hit the brain or spinal cord or deliver about 600 ft-lbf or more of kinetic energy COM in order to incapacitate the CNS through hydrostatic shock. Not many rounds will deliver the necessary 600 ft-lbf of kinetic energy to incapacitate the CNS without a direct CNS hit reliably: 10mm, .357 SIG, and .357 Mag are common handguns that deliver that much kinetic energy from a 4″ barrel [the .45 ACP requires a 6″barrel to deliver that much muzzle energy].

    A self-defense shooter who uses a weapon delivering less than about 600 ft-lbf of muzzle energy can reliably stop an attack immediately only with either a psychological stop — which works somewhere between 97-99% of the time as Dave indicated — or a direct CNS hit.

    To me this means that a self-defense shooter has these options to stop attacks reliably:
    1. Train with 10mm, .357 SIG or .357 Mag out of 4″ barrels or longer to shoot accurately enough to accomplish COM shots reliably under extreme stress; OR
    2. Train with essentially any handgun round to shoot accurately enough to accomplish head shots (eyes) reliably under extreme stress [which not many people can do]; OR
    3. Rely on COM shots from essentially any handgun to stop about 97-99% of all attacks.

    1. Jim H


      I certainly followed the first part of your response but you lost me on the second. I’ve trained thousands of people who when into harms way and I’ve talked to many people who have been shot (and have been shot myself) , and seen hundreds of head of big game shot – I can find no correlation between physical incapacitation and a non-CNS hit with 3,000 ft lbs of energy, let alone 600. Indeed folks more learned than myself in the physical sciences tell me that Kinetic Energy has very little to do with damage – a person “converts” several times the kinetic energy of a handgun while experiencing laser eye surgery.

      Indeed one student and friend is not only a surgeon but was also involved in rocket research likes to point out that you “convert” as much energy in eating a mini-gummy bear as there is converted in 11 125gr .357 magnum impacts.

      I’m not sure this takes us anywhere near an enlightened answer but force (including hydraulic force), shear force and impulse seem to be the things related to physical wounding. Even then they are not the most important physical parts of the equation.

      None of those mean a thing unless we first consider placement and they will vary with the design, construction and *where* the bullet impacts (since what it hits often changes the expansion dynamics of a bullet).

      Hope that doesn’t sound curt or dismissive… I’ve been studying this for 50 years. The more I learn the less I *know* 😉


    2. Brian Fortin

      Kinetic energy may factor into wounding, pain, and psychological shock, but it’s a big stretch to imply kinetic energy will always result in wounding or that it has no effect at all. Nobody with any common sense would say kinetic energy cannot stretch, tear, and perhaps crush a non-elastic tissue like a liver, but let’s face it, most of these tissues are very elastic, that’s why a surgeon can move them around while working on you. That’s why a big meal, a big dump, or a punch to the stomach doesn’t permanently damage you. If there were much appreciable damage from the temporary wound canal we would have long since had evidence of it. Whether it factors into the wounding recipe depends upon luck. That’s your last worry when being shot, so it should be your last hope when doing the shooting. As for hydrostatic pressure, there’s not much hard evidence for it. I’m willing to concede it may be a factor, but not a major one compared to the trauma produced by the permanent wound cavity being produced at that very second. The body is very capable of adjusting to sudden changes in blood pressure, if it were not, the game of football wouldn’t exist because everyone being tackled would instantly go lights out. If a 275 lb linebacker hitting me with 2000 foot pounds of kinetic energy doesn’t incapacitate you, a mere 600 ft-lbs from a bullet won’t make the difference.

  4. Lohn

    Interesting article!
    Nice to know maybe you might be in the 92% and 99.5% just by carrying a gun, with the outcome in your favor.
    Shot placement first, and caliber second, very well said, and you mentioned penetration also. I think all of those are good advise.
    I have worked my way through the best caliber and bullet craze after lot of years, but I still like to hear people talk about them. Everybody carries the best and it makes for good stories around the camp fire.
    Look forward to reading more of your posts and watching more of your videos.

  5. Sian

    ” carry the biggest, most powerful firearm that you can comfortably conceal and accurately shoot.”

    good advice, but I’m not sure how accurately most people can self-assess their capabilities here. There’s a lot of macho-juice floating around, and more than a few people carry a .45 even if they’d be better and faster with a 9mm Luger.

    1. lasttoknow

      actually have a 9mm luger (vs. 30cal luger). nice shooter, but heavy for concealed carry. not to mention the holster is enormous.

      big guns are harder to conceal, weigh more as the day goes along. pocket guns are more likely to be carried in concealment (i like the 9mm pocket guns). however, the smaller guns require serious practice in presentation and controlling multiple shots. for house defense, the heavier guns are a good choice for controlled fire.

      1. Jim H

        Yes Sir, everything is a compromise. I tell my non-institutional students (the institutional often have no choice – they are told what they have to carry) that “you have to work out your own salvation”.

        What works for me may not work for you (as in how we carry and how we shoot it). We are all built differently, have different sized hands and hands strength and some of us cannot coceal a cannon. I am fairly average at around 5’8 and weigh 180. My solution for the last 30 years has been not one but two 1911s…your choice may vary – which is perfectly OK.

        What does fascinate me is the folks who think they cannot conceal a reasonably effective gun and choose little “pocket rockets” that they cannot shoot well : I’ve personally known 4 people (and have good details on another two) who used a .380 to shoot other people – in every case they could not have been worse off with a rock.

        That does not mean it never works, nor does it even mean it won’t work most of the time (after all, as stated in the above article, you don’t even have to shoot most of the time). All of those, by the way were with upper chest hits, about 50% were ball and 50% were JHP. The most hits was 4 I think (in 3 cases the weapon malfunctioned). Mind you “anecdote” is not the plural of “data” – it just gives us examples (there are not enough cases in all the “case studies” I’ve ever read put together to come up with enough to establish a reasonable “confidence interval” or “confidence level” – two different aspects of statistical analysis. There are simply way too many variables which in turn push the numbers needed to compare into the realm of near impossibility)

        Lethal encounters – or the outcome – has an enormous element of chance, depending largely on who is the attacker. There is great risk and no guarantees. Take your best shot and make it count 😉



        1. lasttoknow

          would love to carry 2 1911s. mine is a 9mm compact, weighs 2lbs, and i can find no position/clothing combo that conceals with twisting and reaching (up, over and down). carried that brick around the house for a day (military web belt – ww2 army style) and it just kept getting heavier and more in the way. since we are both same height/weight, tell me how you do it. the .380 and 9mm pocket pistols are controllable for multiple follow-up shots in a hand-size spread on an 8in target at 30ft. but then, i burn about 400rds per month. in a stress situation, i can only hope to keep my head clear and focused enough to hit vitals effectively.

          1. seeker_two

            First thing I would look at is getting a better belt…one that can provide a lot more support. I use the Wilderness Tactical Frequent Flyer belts with the 5-stitch option. Works great for carrying my LC9 in an OWB holster and my cell phone/med kit belt pouch. For extra support (and because I have no butt and no hip bones), I use the Perry uBee suspenders in conjunction with the belt. With both of these, I don’t feel any of the weight of my EDC.

            YMMV, of course….

    2. Ryan H

      I agree 100% with the statement that many carry too much gun for their abilities, but I also think that some people carry too little gun for any number of other reasons. I’ve fallen into both categories at times, but it’s important to remember that just carrying anything is way more important than what it is. I think this is one of the first articles to ever try to quantify that, and it did a great job of putting it into perspective. For me, I don’t ever feel under-prepares with my Glock 27 (which is what I have on me most often), but when I can get away with it I carry my 19, and when I can’t carry the 27 I make due with an XDs 9mm.

      I believe it’s also important to note that how you carry can have a huge impact on what you can carry comfortably. Over the years I’ve learned that finding the right holster, the proper style and fit of my clothes, and of course a good belt all make a huge difference in comfort and concealability.

      1. Brian Fortin

        I would much rather have too much gun than too little gun for a lot of practical reasons.
        1. Bigger gun, more change the bad guy will back down.
        2. Bigger muzzle flash and report, more chance the bad guy will run, or have his shooting skills degraded.
        3. Being the good guy, I can expect to be lacking time to shoot first, which means my first shot might be my only shot. Make it count.
        4. Combat shooting isn’t like target shooting. In target shooting, I don’t have to watch what the paper target is doing, what’s behind the paper target, or change positions, look for cover. I can shoot away at maximum rate of fire. I think people overvalue the rate of fire argument. Unless I am within arm’s length, the actual rate of fire is likely to be much less than what people appear to believe, and if I am within arm’s length, raw caliber power is everything, not rate of fire or mag capacity.

        1. Sam

          I agree. That is why I went with a Ruger Super Redhawk in .44 mag. Even if I don’t hit center mass , the shock wave is devastating to the body. And hopefully the size of the barrel will make the perp to give up before shots fired.

          1. Jim H

            I hope this doesn’t come across as criticism but I would not count on any sort of “shock” from a .44 Magnum. Try to find the podcast of Chicago PD Detective Bob Stasch who shot a knife wielding subject in a hotel 6 times with his .44 Magnum using full power loads and still had to go to his backup gun – all the hits were center mass.

            I’ve shot plenty of game with a .44 magnum with a long barrel and it shows no more effect than a .45 Auto other than it penetrates deeper – stuff doesn’t fall down with it unless you break bone or hit the CNS.

            .44s are surely a good choice I think, even in .44 Special, and during the cooler months I sometimes carry an old 4-screw Model 29 as a B.U.G. or a 25-5 in .45 Colt which I find works a little better than the .44 Mag but they are both adequate if the shot placement is there.

            Carry on!


          2. AnyMouse

            If you read all the articles, you will find the “shock wave” has never been a factor in whether the target “stops”, or not. If you can control a bigger calibre, great. If, at night, you can recover vision immediately after seeing that .44 fireball, great. But the statistics do not demonstrate that “more gun equals more stopping power” under any and all conditions. The legend that ” .XX caliber not only kills the body, but also kills the soul.” is still legend.

  6. seeker_two

    Excellent article! You really cut through the “junk science” and get to the truth of the matter.

    May I suggest a follow-up article?…..”Do Hollowpoints Even Matter?”

  7. John

    Lots of good points. The problem with online forums is how they can amplify the significance of minutia in your mind – with any topic, and you waste time you could be spending on something else. At some point you just have to draw conclusions for yourself based in part on your experience – this blog helped a lot with filtering out forum noise.

    I don’t get to practice enough to have fast followup shots. I don’t notice much difference in recoil between a 9 mm Shield and my .45 XD-S, and I don’t follow up faster with the 9. Also I’m more accurate with the XDS. Bigger bullets=bigger holes=better. Despite the endless lauding on forums of modern bullet technology, faster followup with 9, and all the other explanations people have to justify 9 over .45. If .45 was once be considered mythical in its “stopping power” compared to 9, I think the scale has tipped the other way where 9, with enough reasoning and justifications, is considered superior by many to .45.

    But even with all that explanation of technology, the .45 HST starts bigger than, and gets bigger than the 9. And come on, .45 is just psychologically more gratifying when you know you’re carrying it. :)

    I’m a pretty thin guy and wear well fitting clothes. Of all the guns I’ve tried, the two that have clicked with me better than anything else are the XD-S .45, and a pocket .380 when I have to tuck in my shirt. As fun as it is to carry a Glock 19 or 30 (aside from the weight and the poking and the dressing around the gun), I just can’t most of the time.

    This Reddit thread is full of stories where people pulled their guns (and many stories of absolute stupidity, including one that highlights the risks of telling your friends you carry). Many draws diffusing situations, few uses.

    1. Jim H.


      I find your first paragraph amazingly perceptive.

      I only respond because I have quite a bit of experience at teaching people to defend themselves, in all walks of life, and have shot a lot. You might be surprised at how close your second comment is to the mark even for folks who shoot a LOT. In service caliber handguns of equal size there is very little difference.

      What difference there is usually boils down to how much one practices, not what his caliber is. Exceptions of course in some instances like .44 Magnum and even the .357 Magnum in a medium framed revolver but surprisingly little amongst service size .45s and 9mms (the comparison may not carry over when comparing a compact of one caliber to a service sized gun of another).

      People in these debates seem to fixate on split times an other small increments and forget that the time that is really important is the time the threat is a threat – which runs in to whole seconds if the CNS isn’t hit. We get “mired in minutia” (I’ve been guilty of this for sure). If you fail to hit the CNS then all that matters is how fast the blood runs out – at least when it comes to physical incapacitation. Of course the hole has to be in a place that causes the blood to run out 😉

      Surely we all agree that there are many instances in which just showing the gun “turns off” an attacker. We just cannot count on that (but it sure plays hobb with trying to fill a “data base”).

      Great post!

      Jim H.

    2. HU4MX

      I got me the Bodyguard 380, the Shield 9mm and the XDS 45 ACP. I like to carry the 380 as I can carry it in my pocket or just anywhere without being noticed at all and with the laser on, I’m pretty effective. Nonetheless, I feel that a bullet hitting the target is better that the one who doesn’t. I can’t hit a thing with the XDS. Everytime I go to the range it shoots low and usually 3-8 inches off the target sideways. On the other hand, I can hit dead on with the Shield 9mm +/- 1 inch @ 15 feet. So for that reason I have come up with the conclusion that the Shield is the gun for me. I haven’t used +P which I would believe would have enough penetration/stopping power. I mean people’s bones are not getting any stronger right?

      1. Shooting The Bull Post author

        Unquestionably the Shield is the gun for you, yes. If you can’t hit the target, it doesn’t matter. If you said that you were a bullseye shooter with the .380 and horrible with the Shield, I would have said to stick with the .380. Accuracy counts for more than caliber, but — whenever possible, I do recommend that one use at least a 9mm, so — the Shield sounds like an excellent fit for you. And with proper-performing ammo that works well from that particular size gun (like HST, Winchester Defend, Gold Dot 124+P, Critical Defense, or CorBon DPX) it’s plenty capable of delivering the penetration and expansion you’d need to give you the best shot at stopping a threat.

        1. HU4MX

          Ty for your prompt response. I was actually wondering what ammo should I get for defense. I bough 100- rds of reloads just for practice but wasn’t sure what ammo for defense. Thx again and God Bless America! =D

          1. lasttoknow


            not quite understanding questions about which ammo to carry. the whole purpose of STB’s tests is to let us know what works in his guns, so we can look that direction for our SD needs.

            but, then again i am the lasttoknow.

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  9. Bob Legg

    Realize I’m late coming to this article, so this post may die a lonely death.
    I’d like to put forward one more observation about the shooting video – which could have resulted in a vastly different outcome.
    When the “friend” walks up and shakes hands, he offers his right hand, first to one, and then the other. Then, he throws his punch with his LEFT hand. The victim was able to recover from the punch and present his weapon. However, what would have happened if he had fallen for the ruse and shaken hands? The first assailant would then have control of his ‘gun’ hand, and the punches may have never stopped.
    It’s a point worth noting that a successful defense often involves many crucial items long before the successful placement of bullets (regardless of the caliber).

    1. waldengr

      valid observations, but not quite on point in a discussion of the real or mythical effectiveness of any particular bullet calibre. i think you have made an excellent case for rule 1 of a gunfight…don’t be there.


  10. Ed

    Heck, if at autopsy the docs can’t even tell the difference between the wounds created from .35 to .45 caliber firearms, it seems that if it falls within that range, pretty much any bullet choice is fine and anything related to specific ammunition choice is nothing but extreme hair splitting. See below:

    From the FBI report:

    “The extent to which a projectile expands determines the diameter of the permanent cavity which, simply put, is that tissue which is in direct contact with the projectile and is therefore destroyed. Coupled with the distance of the path of the projectile (penetration), the total permanent cavity is realized. Due to the elastic nature of most human tissue and the low velocity of handgun projectiles relative to rifle projectiles, it has long been established by medical professionals, experienced in evaluating gunshot wounds, that the damage along a wound path visible at autopsy or during surgery cannot be distinguished between the common handgun calibers used in law enforcement. That is to say an operating room surgeon or Medical Examiner cannot distinguish the difference between wounds caused by .35 to .45 caliber projectiles.”

    1. Brian Fortin

      Surgeons are not trained in discriminating between calibers. Of course the two holes look the same, they are close enough in size to look the same, but that doesn’t make them identical. Let’s define what we mean by permanent wound cavity and temporary wound cavity. These tissues are elastic, and gelatin is a great analogy. If I ram a .35 diameter rod through a block of gelatin, and a .45 diameter rod along side it, when I pull the rods out, both permanent “cavities” are going to collapse and appear identical. However they appear, they are not the same, and whatever that larger projectile touches or nicks along the way is going to be damaged. The human body is a precision instrument like your car. You don’t rely upon anecdotal stories and subjective opinions from your mechanic to gap your spark plugs (“I’m a mechanic and it looks ok to me”) you use a feeler gauge. For every surgeon who tells you the permanent wound canal of a 9mm looks the same as that of a .45, I’ll produce an anecdote where another physician tells his patient, “You were very lucky young man, if that bullet had been a half millimeter to the left, you’d be dead.” It is utterly preposterous for two things which are measurably different to be dismissed as equivalent just because some expert told us to swallow his illogic. My current firearms instructor advised me we are moving back to 9mms because of this baloney. My response was, “Yeah, the 9mm ammo just happens to be half the cost, I guess your SWAT team is moving to 9mms, right?” (crickets)

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  12. Brian Fortin

    Super article. I’d add that the size of the gun may factor into whether the guy runs or fights, and if you are going to argue that report and muzzle flash factor into whether they run when the shooting starts, and they do, I might add that they are much more likely to flee from the wall of flame and thunderous boom of my .454 Casull than my .22lr. There are plenty of reports of people being shot with 9mm, and not realizing it until after the fight is over. There are no reports of someone not realizing a .454 Casull just amputated their foot, maybe because those people end up dying, I’m not quite sure. A 9mm won’t penetrate the bud guy’s vest, much less bunch it up and drive it into his abdomen. Also, 9mms don’t turn cement walls into concealment. Maybe taking someone with me who just k5’d my chest is a petty reason to carry a big bore, but that’s just me.

    I know you know this, but I want to offer an extreme example why big bores are better. There’s a reason army snipers favor .50 cals over smaller calibers, the bigger the bullet mass, the more likely it will be able to resist the forces that want to push it off course in the atmosphere, and in the body. Shot placement is great, but it’s really only half the answer, the bullet still has to travel all the treacherous pathways to the killing points. This is always a gamble, even with a .50 S&W, but the probabilities are what are important. The smaller the bullet mass, the bigger your gamble the bullet will get there and do sufficient damage so the bad guy doesn’t take you with him. Bigger is better, provided you can demonstrate competency at moderate and likely gunfight ranges.


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