Once you've selected the firearm that best fits you and your carry-style, you are going to need to decide which handgun caliber is best for your personal defense. Some of the basic rules you’ll need to remember when choosing your personal defense caliber are:
- With an increase in caliber, comes an increase in recoil.
- With increased recoil, comes slower follow up shots.
- Increased recoil is harder to control.
- Smaller guns will have more felt recoil than larger guns of the same caliber.
Look at all the ballistic data for the different calibers your gun is available in. You’ll want to compare the penetration, velocity, and muzzle energy of different bullet weights for the same caliber. Of course, this will only muddy the waters even more, since there is no “perfect” caliber or bullet. The best you can do is find a happy medium between all of the factors.
When choosing a caliber, the general rule of thumb is to get the largest caliber you can comfortably and reliably shoot. Consider the size of the gun you’re thinking about buying and the calibers that that model is available in. Think about your own size. Can you handle your choice of handguns in this caliber? Can you quickly get a second shot off that will hit its intended target?
If you can, go out and rent your prospective handgun in the different calibers. Or maybe somebody at the range has that model and would be willing to let you try it out. I’ve even seen folks on internet forums solicit the use of other people’s guns in order to help them make a decision on a model of certain caliber. Sure, it’s always best to try before you buy, but if that’s not an option all you can do is make the best educated decision you possibly can.
Some other things to consider when choosing a handgun caliber are:
How common is the ammunition for this caliber? The three most popular handgun calibers today are 9MM Parabellum (aka 9MM, 9 x 19MM, 9MM Luger), .40S&W, and .45ACP. The cheapest being 9MM. You generally won’t have a problem finding 9MM and .40S&W on the shelf at your local Wally-World. I quite frequently have trouble finding .45ACP though.
Can I afford to practice with this caliber? Look at ammunition prices where you’re most likely to buy it, whether it’s Wal-Mart or an internet site. Compare the prices of the different calibers. Remember though, there are ways to reduce the cost of practice ammunition. You can buy either new or reloaded ammunition in bulk, reloads being cheaper, or you can reload your own ammunition, which is usually the cheapest route of all after the initial investment to buy the equipment. If you go to this website (http://www.ammoengine.com/) you can see the range of prices by caliber and bullet type.
The 9MM Parabellum has been around since before WW I. It originated in Europe, which is why it is measured in millimeters, rather than fractions of an inch. It is about the smallest caliber that I would recommend for personal defense.
The .40S&W has become very popular. Recoil is sharp due to the higher velocity of the bullets, but it is not unpleasant. It’s been my experience that the recoil of the .40S&W is slightly higher than that of comparable pistols chambered for .45 ACP.
The .45ACP has been around for over a century, and has proven itself as an effective personal defense round. This cartridge fires a relatively heavy bullet at relatively low speeds, which is effective, but does not take advantage of the way a slightly lighter bullet at higher speeds can be more effective, carry more energy, and recoil more softly. Part of the reason for this is the lower chamber pressure, compared to more recently introduced cartridges.
Remember, if you choose a caliber and don’t like it, you can always change your mind. Sooner or later, most people do. You’re not stuck with any gun after you buy it. There is always somebody out there looking for one just like it. Some handguns can even be changed from one caliber to another simply by changing the barrel and magazine.