I remember the days of the 1994 “assault weapons” ban: new magazines over 10 rounds were illegal, and even large double-stack 9mm pistols were required to come with 10 round magazines — and any replacements or additionals we bought were limited to 10 rounds, too. “There era of the ‘wondernine’ is over”, opined writer after writer.
Along with that came a new phrase from those picking which gun to buy: “if the government says I can only carry 10 rounds, they might as well be .45!” The sentiment was that if you couldn’t have more, you might as well have better. Remember, though, that was in 1994. Things have changed just a bit since then.
Well, maybe they really haven’t. More precisely, some people haven’t changed!
Just the other day I saw something online from a fellow who was talking about his new defensive gun. He lives in an state where they are limited to 10 round magazines and had purchased a .45ACP model over a similarly-sized 9mm — declaring, just like in the good old days, that if he could only have 10 rounds anyhow he wanted them to be as big as he could get. Hence, the .45ACP.
On the surface this sounds like a reasonable idea; after all, if you can’t have capacity shouldn’t you get effectiveness as a tradeoff? If the gun you’re carrying is limited to 10 (or 7 or 5 — the number doesn’t really matter) rounds whether it’s 9mm or .45ACP, doesn’t it make sense to pick the bigger bullet?
There’s only one little flaw with that idea: there’s no practical tradeoff to be made. The best information we have — coming from sources as disparate as Greg Ellifritz’s study of handgun “stopping power” to the anecdotal experiences of those instructors who have actual experience in battle — say that there’s no practical difference in effectiveness between the 9mm and .45ACP. (There are some folks who still insist there is, of course, but the weight of the evidence is running almost completely against them. At this point it’s like trying to argue that cigarettes don’t cause cancer.)
If there is no appreciable or practical difference in effectiveness, then the rationale for choosing a larger cartridge in a capacity-limited gun makes no sense. The choice isn’t between 10 less-effective or 10 more-effective bullets; the choice is between 10 bullets of roughly equal effectiveness. It would seem a non-choice.
There’s more to it, however. The fact of the matter is that the recoil of the cartridge negatively affects the shooter’s balance of speed and precision. Having less recoil means that, for any given level of speed, you can shoot to a greater level of precision. Conversely, for any given level of precision the softer-recoiling gun will allow you to shoot at a higher rate of speed. The choice, then, isn’t between fewer bullets of greater effectiveness, but rather fewer bullets that you can put accurately on target faster.
More holes in important places on the target in a shorter amount of time means that your attack is likely to end sooner. If there’s anything that we’ve learned about handgun “stopping power”, it’s that the more shots you land in vital areas the surer and sooner the bad guy is likely to stop!
Let’s add in another factor: in easily-concealable guns, the kinds that are usually intrinsically capacity-limited, perceived recoil is magnified. The lighter weight of the smaller gun, combined with the higher slide velocities and the smaller grips, all make perceived recoil and its effects on the balance of speed and precision greater. The advantage shifts even further to the side of the compact 9mm over the compact .45ACP.
The reality is that, if you’re in a capacity-limited environment (whether it’s because the state is limiting you or the size of the gun is), your defensive gun choice is exactly the same as it would be if you didn’t have that capacity constraint. In fact, if you have fewer rounds on tap it’s actually more important to pick the gun that gives you the optimum balance of speed and precision! If you really are limited in how much ammunition you can have in the gun, doesn’t it make sense to make sure that you can accurately deliver the rounds you have on target as quickly as you can? That’s efficiency: achieving the goal (making the bad guy stop) with the least use of resources (time and ammunition) possible.
Paradoxically, the choice is the same even if you weren’t limited in capacity. If, for instance, you had the choice of two guns — carrying, say, 15 rounds — and there really was a difference in effectiveness, why wouldn’t you choose the more effective bullet then, too? After all, better is better regardless of how many you have, right? Yet that same argument is rarely made when considering a full-sized gun in areas where capacity isn’t artificially constrained.
The people making the statement that they want a different cartridge if they are limited in how many they can have are saying, in essence, that they know there’s a difference in controllability of the rounds they’re choosing. They’re tacitly admitting that they wouldn’t make the same choice in a larger capacity firearm, so they obviously understand this principle. What they don’t understand is that the tradeoffs are always the same, and further that they’re making the tradeoff decision based on faulty and/or outdated information.
What’s the real goal?
You always need to choose a defensive round based on the ability to deliver it accurately on target in the shortest amount of time possible. No matter how well you shoot a .45, you’ll shoot a 9mm better (as defined by the balance of speed and precision.) You should always pick “shoot better” when you’re picking a defensive cartridge, no matter what the capacity of the particular gun happens to be.
None of this, of course, applies to recreational firearms. If you want a .50AE Desert Eagle to play with at the range, be my guest! A big “boomer” can be a lot of fun, but when it comes time to pick a defensive sidearm you need to be more critical of your choices. It’s also not to be construed as necessarily advocating the sub-caliber options. There are those for whom the best choice is truly going to be a .22LR or a .32ACP; they, too, have to make a choice based on their own balance of speed and precision with whatever gun they choose. In fact, this discussion of capacity limits may be more important to them — the person who can’t control even a 9mm will probably be better off with 10 rounds of .32ACP instead of a cartridge they can’t control.
For most of us, though, the choice is going to come down to one of the common defensive handgun cartridges: 9mm, .40S&W, and .45ACP. If you’re limited to 10 rounds, they need to be bullets that you can get accurately on target as fast as possible. I’ve personally run into no cases where that was legitimately a larger cartridge.
The proper attitude should be “if I’m limited to 10 rounds, I want to be able to shoot them as efficiently as possible!”
– Grant Cunningham