Top 5 Defensive Handgun Calibers: 380 ACP isn’t One By: Kat Ainsworth


When you think of defensive handgun ammunition, your mind probably jumps straight to 9x19mm Parabellum. After all, it’s the cartridge the various alphabet agencies prefer, and it’s gained some well-deserved attention as a capable defensive round. But what if there was more to self-defense with handguns than 9mm? There’s a whole wide world of ammo out there, and it might be time to broaden your shooting horizons. Check out our top five list and see what you think (yes, we’ll still include 9mm).

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1. 9x19mm Parabellum

Let’s get this one out of the way first. 9mm is currently the most popular round for defensive purposes. It has proven itself countless times both through use by members of law enforcement and by the average gun owner. So, why are we including it? Because there are a number of gun owners out there who believe they can only handle 22 LR or 380 ACP. If you’re a member of the 380 ACP club, here’s the thing: 9mm’s felt recoil and muzzle rise is negligible compared to 380 ACP, and the ballistic gains are significant. In fact, if you’re running a small handgun chambered in 380 ACP, it’s likely to be snappier than 9mm.

Yes, there’s more to the handgun world than 9mm, but it’s a great cartridge that’s well worth depending on. Whether you want a micro, a compact, or a full-size handgun, there’s something for you.

wilson combat 9mm defensive handgun
Wilson Combat’s P320 is an awesome pistol. There are a lot of 9mms out there, and one of them is going to fit your defensive handgun needs. (Photo credit: Kat Stevens)

2. 10mm Auto

10mm has a lengthy history and owes its existence to the handgun-related dreaming of the late Colonel Jeff Cooper. Today it’s favored by handgun hunters, but it also has defensive applications. One of the most commonly stated reasons for not using 10mm for self-defense is fear of overpenetration. In reality, any round is capable of over-penetrating a target, and the answer is to use the appropriate ammunition and follow the rules of gun safety. If you’re using your handgun in self-defense, you still need to be aware of what is beyond your attacker. This holds true whether you’re using a 10mm, a 9mm, or a 380 ACP.

Take care to use defensive ammunition such as Federal Premium’s Punch 10mm. Using rounds that are loaded hotter for hunting purposes, which includes some made by Buffalo Bore and CorBon, isn’t a great plan for defense against two-legged attackers. Is it effective? Yes, but the risk of over-penetration is greater. It’s also important to understand that 10mm doesn’t produce enormous felt recoil like many people assume. Compact pistols like the Glock 29 are an excellent choice for concealed carry with 10mm, but full-sized guns can also work. Don’t knock it until you’ve spent some time shooting it.

10mm 1911
The Ruger SR1911 in 10mm is a precise handgun and its steel frame helps mitigate felt recoil and muzzle rise. (Photo credit: Kat Stevens)

3. 357 Magnum/38 Special

If you prefer revolvers, 357 Magnum is a good way to go. Even better, if it’s chambered in 357 Magnum, you can also run the softer-shooting 38 Special through it. When it comes to self-defense, yes, the 357 Magnum will be more effective than the 38 Special, but they both have their uses. Because this is a magnum load it does produce greater felt recoil and muzzle rise than some calibers, which is one reason not to use a snub-nosed or otherwise diminutive revolver chambered in it for self-defense purposes. Your chosen defensive handgun needs to get back on target fast and deliver an accurate performance, which means most people require a revolver with a steel frame and longer barrel.

The Smith & Wesson 686 is an example of a larger revolver with enough overall bulk to help mitigate felt recoil. It might be more difficult to conceal than some others, but it’s not impossible. Before you choose a 357 Magnum, stop and think about whether or not you’ll be able to reacquire your target quickly after that first shot. Then, stop and look at longer-barreled revolvers rather than tiny snubbies.

Smith and Wesson 686 revolver chambered in 357 Magnum
The Smith and Wesson 686 is a solid example of a well-made revolver chambered in 357 Magnum. (Photo credit: Kat Stevens)

4. 40 Smith and Wesson

We know what you’re thinking. “Come on, 40 is dead! It’s short and weak!” but you’d be wrong. The 40 Smith and Wesson does still have applications outside competitive matches. Yes, it offers the power factor a lot of competition shooters are looking for, but guess what? It’s awesome for self-defense, too. It’s true that there are fewer guns being released in this caliber, and it’s true the benefits of it aren’t so enormous as to make it a massive winner over something like 9mm, but it’s still a good round. 40 Smith and Wesson can do a few things 9mm cannot, like drop a massive feral hog with a single shot. Like it or not, this is a cartridge with some ballistics advantages over the ones smaller than it (including 9mm).

One thing worth addressing is the idea that the barrel of your 40 S&W will burn out with lightning speed, leaving you with a gun that can’t even manage minute of dinner plate accuracy. Truth is, the average gun owner isn’t going to shoot enough to shoot out a barrel. 40 Smith & Wesson does run a bit hotter and can absolutely wear out a gun faster than, say, 9mm, but the odds of the average person managing that are slim. This is a nice option if you can’t quite swing a 10mm but want a cartridge with a little ballistic superiority to 9mm (yes, we said it).

smith and wesson m and p defensive handgun
Smith & Wesson manufactures quite a few guns chambered in 40 Smith and Wesson. (Photo credit: Smith & Wesson)

5. 5.7x28mm

5.7x28mm is a cartridge that’s been around for a while but has only recently started getting more love. One reason might be the fact this ammo was easier to find than many other common calibers during ammo shortages, but it’s also just a good round. It was designed by FN Herstal for use in PDWs (personal defense weapons) in 1990 and quickly found its way into handguns. FN created it as a potential replacement for 9mm with NATO, but that didn’t work out quite as they hoped. Even so, the 5.7x28mm has been used by many different countries and enjoys some popularity here in the United States as well.

There have been more pistols chambered in this cartridge released in recent years, including the Ruger 57. It’s accurate to state there aren’t as many ammo or handgun options in this caliber as some, but they do exist. And there really is something satisfying about still being able to buy your precious ammo when all the “cool” calibers are sold out. Is it a capable defensive cartridge? Absolutely.

two tone ruger 57 defensive handgun
The Ruger 57 is just one example of the 5.7x28mm guns making an appearance on the gun market. (Photo credit: Duke’s Sport Shop)

What did we miss? Tell us what you think the best defensive handgun caliber is in the comments section.