Is There A Perfect Handgun Caliber?

Dec. 18, 2023
Some experienced shooters talk about "answers to problems that don't exist." But are they right or wrong?

As happens all too often these days, a posting popped up in one of my social media feeds that inspired a debate. In this case, the inspiring post had to do with whether or not the (relatively) new .30 Super Carry cartridge would 1) prove successful, and 2) was ever necessary in the first place. That is not an insult to the cartridge, it’s creators or the company that manufactures it. The very same debate has been had about (probably) every new handgun cartridge/caliber ever designed or created. What drives this seemingly never-ending search for the perfect handgun caliber?

If you ask people who don’t know all that much about firearms what it is they look for in the “perfect” handgun round, all too often you get, “Stopping power.” Experienced and knowledgeable shooters know that “stopping power” is largely a myth, and the ability of a handgun shot to stop an attacker is as much about shot placement as it is energy delivery and wound creation. The people who have been in actual gunfights will tell you, 100% of the time, they’d rather have a rifle than a handgun in a gun fight; that the handgun was designed to be a deterrent to your enemy while you get back to your rifle. In law enforcement, since we never know when or where the gun fight is going to be, and it looks a little too aggressive to walk around with a slung rifle all the time, our handgun is the best option we have when a lethal encounter presents itself.

With that in mind, what’s the best handgun caliber? Given modern day metallurgy, projectile design and more, the “best” often is decided by what you believe in. While choosing a handgun should be determined by what you are comfortable carrying and competent and shooting, the third “C” is what you’re confident will stop the threat. As with almost everything in life, that boils down to your perception. The choice of an effective handgun caliber is a very subjective thing and what other people share (including what you read in this article) should only play a role in your decision process. It shouldn’t be “law” as you make very personal choices that will potentially impact your comfort and safety for years to come.

Some very experienced and knowledgeable men refuse to carry anything but the tried and true Government Model 1911 chambered in the venerable .45ACP cartridge. Others with knowledge and experience will choose a double-stack 9mm, such as the Glock 17 or Sig Sauer P226, all day every day. Yet another school of thought combines the two into one of two options: A double stack .45 – which requires pretty big hands – or a double stack 9mm built on a 1911 design framework. That second option, the double stack 9mm 1911 has become very popular of late as demonstrated by the Staccato 2011 and Springfield Armory Prodigy models. Yet another school of thought swears by the 10mm, and another by the .40S&W and there are even a few that insist the .45GAP cartridge, as long as a .40S&W but with the same external and terminal ballistics as the .45ACP, is the best thing out there.

What you come to realize is that, in general, the larger the caliber, the fewer rounds of it the gun can comfortably hold in the magazine. If you insist on a weapon chambering .45ACP, you’re likely going to settle for between 8-14 rounds in the weapon – and anything over 9 means you’d better have big hands. If you’re happy with 9mm, you can have an assortment of handguns that run from 6-21 rounds in the weapon, with all of the 13+ designs still being comfortable and outrunning .45 round counts by as much as 25%. If your handgun is chambering .40S&W, .357Sig (still a .40 caliber case) or 10mm, you can get something in between the numbers for 9mm and .45 round count.

Notice that nowhere above has the .380ACP been mentioned. Even though the bullet itself is the same diameter as a 9mm, the .380 is a smaller projectile by 15-20% and usually leaves the barrel a couple hundred feet per second slower and therefore has a lower energy delivery on the target. When you look at energy delivery numbers, which engineers have a tendency to do, you realize that throughout firearms history, ‘smaller caliber bullet’ doesn’t necessarily mean lower energy delivery. It depends on bullet velocity as well. Wound creation can be affected by projectile design with hollowpoint and jacketed hollowpoint ammo creating larger wound channels than full metal jacket or simple round nose rounds.

Which brings us to the cartridge that was the impetus for this entire article: The .30 Super Carry manufactured by Federal Premium Ammo. With an actual bullet diameter of .312, the projectile has a smaller cross section than either the .380 or the 9mm. The case is smaller diameter than both as well, but slightly longer than a 9mm case allowing for more propellent to push the bullet. With a heavier bullet and moving faster (about 1,200 fps out of the barrel), the .30SC will outperform the .380 in almost every measurable way. When compared to a standard 9mm, the .30SC delivers just slightly less energy on target, but allows for added capacity in a comparable sized magazine.

So then the choice you would have to make is, are you willing to trade the slightly lower energy delivery for a few extra rounds in the gun? For some, the decision was made long ago because they won’t trade out of a .45ACP into a 9mm even if it means doubling their capacity in the weapon. Some of those same folks can always be heard saying, “Bullet placement is everything,” and they are darn good shots with their 1911s. But for those folks who are okay with the idea of carrying other calibers and the round count is a consideration third to comfort and reliability of a weapon, the .30SC is a viable option.

Now we just need to see it available in a few more weapon designs. We fully expected to see Glock come out with compact and mid-size guns chambered for .30SC but it hasn’t happened (as of this writing). There are plenty of other manufacturers out there and if they see potential sales for the weapons, they’ll develop them. Until then, choices chambering the .30SC are limited to Nighthawk Custom and Smith & Wesson. But if you’re a 9mm/.380ACP shooter, you should check out the .30SC.


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