Self defense, stopping power, and caliber: Part 8

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“So, smarty pants – what the best self-defense caliber?”

I receive many emails asking, in essence, what the “best” self-defense caliber might be. (Those emails, in fact, have served as the motivation behind this series.) The correspondents are probably expecting sage advice, the wisdom of years, a sort of Ballistic Oracle. What they get is a non-committal “it depends!”

If you take nothing else from this series, take this: there is no such thing as “best” – there is only “suitability for purpose.”

Why is that? As we learned in the first parts, there is a pretty large envelope – caliber, weight, and velocity – of performance criteria that have shown themselves to work well. Thus, any cartridge you select within that envelope is likely to do the job, as long as you do yours.

That’s the most important part: that the gun in question enables you to do your job. It is the first place you should start. You need to be honest with yourself, accurately assess what you can and cannot handle. Remember that a self-defense scenario often will call for multiple, rapid, precisely-placed shots. Can you do that with the guns that you’re considering? Really? Be honest with yourself!

I see many people who are talked into a gun that is touted as a “better stopper”, but who are unable to handle it to the standards given above. Most of this is technique, and technique can be learned, but everyone has some upper limit. Remember: only accurate hits count, and you should strive to maximize your hit potential. As we’ve explored, power is irrelevant if it doesn’t get to something important!

Once you’ve passed that hurdle, the choices almost make themselves. In any given cartridge, if you pick a hollowpoint load in the middle of the caliber’s normal weight range, you’ll generally have most of what you need. There are exceptions, of course: at the lowest ends of the energy spectrum (say, standard .38 Specials) penetration becomes an issue, so you should tend to the heavier rounds. At the other end (the heavy magnums), the more powerful loads often need lighter bullets to limit penetration and enhance expansion.

For everything else, stay away from the lightest and heaviest bullets, pick a decent hollowpoint, and you’ll most likely be just fine.

The most important part of this whole selection process is to practice with the load that you’ve chosen. If the cartridge/gun combination is “too much” for you to do so, that’s a sign that you need to pick something else. You need to practice with your safety/rescue equipment, and if you can’t or don’t want to, then you will be less prepared to face a deadly encounter. The old trick of practicing with Specials while carrying Magnums on the street has been thoroughly discredited, because it doesn’t allow the user to get used to the dramatic difference in handling between the two.

(This isn’t to say that you have to do all your training this way; I do a lot of work with light loads when I’m diagnosing a trigger control issue, or to help develop a specific skill. When I’ve got them down, though, I switch to my carry load and train extensively with that.)

So, what do I carry? Most of the time, I load up the trusted and proven .38 Special +P 158 grain all lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint in my revolvers and a 124 grain +P jacketed hollowpoint in my 9mm pistols.  I’ve spoken with  people who have actually used these loads against adversaries, and to a person they were all very satisfied with the ballistic effect.

(Massad Ayoob tells me that his research showed police agencies who switched from the 158 grain revolver load to hot autoloading cartridges did so not to get “better” bullets, but to get “more bullets.” I’m confident in it’s abilities, and in my ability to handle the cartridge from any gun under any conditions.)

This is a conscious tradeoff. For instance, I really like the .44 Special. It’s a great round, but in a concealable gun I just don’t handle it as well as other calibers. In fact, a hot .357 Magnum from a Ruger SP101 is easier for me to control than a .44 Special from a small gun, and I consider the Magnum to be too much for delivering multiple, rapid, combat-accurate hits on target. I like the .357 too, but I have to admit to myself that if I want to shoot as efficiently as possible, it’s not the wise choice.

I’ve picked the most effective round that falls within my personal limitations and practice with it extensively. I think that is the most rational way to approach this whole topic!

Next time, we’ll explore some less obvious considerations when picking your “ideal” self defense cartridge.

(Remember to click the “Stopping Power” tag to see all the articles in this series!)

-=[ Grant ]=-

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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