Most of you have probably already made your decision about what gun and caliber to carry or to use for self defense, but for those of you who have not and for those of you wavering due to the high cost of ammo and other considerations, I want to offer my personal ideas about my decisions and what works for me. Just my opinions. They may not work for you, but just consider them. I am frequently asked by students about what gun to purchase and what ammo to buy for self-defense purposes. Should it be a semi-automatic pistol or a revolver? Should I buy a 9mm Pistol for self-defense purposes? Should I shoot 115 grain, 124 grain, or 147 grain loads? These questions are like asking what kind of car to buy, what kind of refrigerator to buy, or whether to drink Pepsi or Coca Cola. Everyone has an opinion, preferences, and influences from experiences of a friend or family member or their own limited personal observations. Some like white cars, while others like red cars. Some prefer several extra accessories or options; others do not. So, IT DEPENDS on your likes and dislikes, features desired, uses, your hand and finger size, lifestyle dress, and personal preferences. All options have pros and cons, limitations and advantages. So, the only opinion and decision that really matters is yours, since you must “live or die” with your decision and your life or the lives of your loved ones may very well depend on it. It is a very individualistic choice among many nice options, with you selecting features you want that match your PURPOSE and USE… and LIFESTYLE. You might even have two or three uses (e.g. concealed carry or home defense) with each purpose having a different gun that meets each requirement or manner of dress. Sadly (for my spouse and our budget), there is NOT one universal gun that meets ALL uses and purposes, but this is an excuse (sorry– justification) for having more than one gun. The pistol you carry concealed might be smaller, weigh less, not have a light attached, not be so wide, be capable of being carried “cocked and locked,” and hold fewer rounds than the gun you use for home defense or the one you use for competitive target shooting or the one you hunt with, etc. You make trade-offs among easy concealability, firepower, features, and other very personal criteria.
Here are some thoughts about the revolver as compared to the semi-automatic pistol. Of course, opinions and preferences differ and there are different models of pistols and revolvers with other considerations.
- Thinner without a cylinder, so usually more concealable
- Holds more cartridges, about 15 on average per magazine capacity
- Faster speed of reloading with already loaded magazines; saves time with no inserting cartridges in each of 5 or 6 chambers on average; only has one chamber
- Generally, more accessories available, e.g. holsters, pouches, etc.
- Rugged finishes with almost indestructible modern materials
- More mechanicals to operate, e.g. slide, slide lock lever, external safety (sometimes)
- Inoperable until clear malfunctions or stoppages (must know clearance drills)
- Simple to operate with fewer functions
- Great reliability with less mechanicals
- Usually less expensive to purchase
- Fewer moving parts, so less sensitive to lack of cleaning/maintenance
- Holds less rounds on average (5 or 6) versus pistol average (15 for 9mm)
- Must reload more often- more time involved
- Reloading requires practice and is dexterous operation
- Even speed reloader or strip require much practice to put a round in each of 5 or 6 (or more) chambers
- Not as rugged GENERALLY regarding grit and grime (and for some finishes.)
For me personally, and I am not attempting to influence your personal decision, I consider a 9mm (“Nine”) adequate for my self defense, especially for concealed carry purposes. While I sincerely appreciate larger caliber cartridges and have several guns in large calibers, they are not my personal primary choice for carry. I do, however, carry a custom compact .45 sometimes. No one should criticize me nor demean me for my decision, since it is not their decision, their life is not at stake, they don’t frequent the type of places or locations that I usually frequent, they aren’t buying the gun or my ammo, nor shooting it for my purpose. Again, this is a very personal and individualistic choice for your goals and preferences.
So why did I make the decision to carry a “Nine?” My main self-defense purpose is to be prepared (just in case ) for a (highly unlikely- low probability) encounter with a bad perpetrator-aggressor that intends to do me grave, serious bodily harm or imminent death. If this situation occurs, I want my muscle memory to automatically kick-in and to be able to hit what I’m shooting at with accuracy and to be able to do so more than one time… to have the reliability of about 3 consistent, consecutive hits. Because of who I am, with my carpal tunnel wrist, aging eyesight, condition, etc., I find that the less movement I have and the less recoil I experience, the much more accurate I can shoot quickly. Yes, I can handle the recoil of a .40 or .45, but I have to practice so much more with them to be accurate. If you miss your target, does it matter what the caliber was? I find that with a 9mm I can be about twice as accurate with half the practice time and half the ammo cost at the Range. This encourages me to practice more. A “Nine’s” recoil is very manageable for just about everyone. I like the 15 or 17-shot capacity of the 9mm over the 7 or 8 shots of a .45 and over the 5 or 6 shots of most revolvers. If you are likely to encounter multiple attackers or need shots to reposition yourself, the higher capacity is a huge plus. The “nine” has been around for many years and like any OTHER CALIBER or cartridge, it has its bandwagon of followers, as well as those who discredit its capability.
Safely PRACTICE shooting and handling the “nine” or any firearm with a certified, professional firearms instructor. Take time for the TRAINING, as early as possible in your life, so you don’t have to unlearn inferior techniques, tactics, and fundamentals and then learn optimal ones. Learn the basics of proper grip, stance, aiming, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control, breath control, and follow-up, accuracy techniques, defensive tactics, use of deadly force, when and when not to shoot, and legal considerations. These are of primary importance, not the equipment you use, be it a 9mm or .45 or semi-automatic or revolver. The key is Shot Placement and that means professional TRAINING and PRACTICE. You could own the biggest, most expensive, high caliber and precision gun in the world, but if you don’t know how to shoot it accurately, it won’t do you any good. Also, like any other machine, a gun is useless or dangerous if it is not used correctly within its capabilities.
A question that I am frequently asked is “What makes a good self-defense load or round?” Velocity seems to be a main factor for a lot of shooters when they decide to select their firearm ammo. Some tend to gravitate towards +P or even +P+ loads. Velocity is not always the best or only criterion when deciding among a “fast” 127gr +P+, 147gr, or 124gr load in 9mm, for example. Another consideration is the ability to control the follow-up shot. If you have two loads which both perform about the same, you might consider going to the slow/heavy bullet due to the fact that the slower and heavier load is more easily controlled. Heavier bullets usually hit higher on the target. Remember, muzzle energy means more power and more movement, which affects control and accuracy.
I believe in the F.B.I and respect them and their studies about what makes a good self-defense load. My Dad worked with them. To meet their requirements, the F.B.I. requires:
- At least 12″ of PENETRATION by a bullet in properly-prepared ballistic gelatin/soft tissue, and bullet
- EXPANSION to the largest diameter possible in order to cause the largest possible wound channel.
I recommend Hollow Points as a good self-defense round. They are sold in different weights, with and without jackets, but all of them have a cavity in the tip (a Hollow Point like in the picture below) which helps them expand when they hit a human or target. This expansion serves two important purposes in a self-defense gun: it causes more energy transfer and more damage to the attacker (which helps to stop the bad guy quickly) and it keeps the bullet from passing through the attacker (through-and-through penetration) and hitting an innocent person, which can happen easily with other types of bullets, e.g. non-Hollow Points and Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) rounds.
So, with proper HOLLOW POINT and 124-125 grain ammo, a 9mm will work fine for defense, since it meets these two F.B.I. criteria. Recognize that some guns perform better with high pressure loads or bigger grains, while some don’t. Each gun will perform differently with different loads, so be sure and try different grains or load weights. It is my opinion that the 9mm by its design seems to perform better with 124 or 125 grain ammo, NOT the 115 grain. This is certainly true for me and my pistols. However, I do use 115 grain FMJ (Ball) ammo for plinking and practice sometimes. I believe it’s best to use the same weight bullet for practice as the ones you will use for self-defense encounters. That way you can get accustomed to the recoil and your target impact points will be nearly alike. This is not absolutely mandatory all the time, but I do recommend it often.
For self and home defense, you should probably switch from using FMJ (Ball ammo) to Jacketed Hollow Points (JHPs.) Hollow Points leave a bigger exit wound and in that rare instance of use for your defense, you want to induce as MUCH TRAUMA as possible, because your life depends on it. Recognize that both .45 and 9mm bullets penetrate skin and bone, so both are more than enough for Self-Defense purpose.
Some say that the knock-down power of calibers is most important, so a .45 or larger caliber should always be used. The critical question here is not which caliber has “better” stopping power, but rather does the 9 mm have “sufficient” stopping power. Recall above I said that accurate shot placement is very important. If you shoot someone, you seldom shoot them with just one round. You put enough rounds in them to stop them from being a threat to you… to STOP them, not necessarily kill them. With my experience and accuracy in firing various calibers, I know that I am much more accurate with my 9mms than with my .40s or .45s, etc. I can usually get 5 out of five on a 9 inch target at 15 yards with my “nines,” whereas with my .45s I can get 2 or 3 of five on a 9 inch target at that distance. I understand that practice greatly affects this. Whatever you shoot the most of is what you will get proficient with. Also, recognize that aggressors on drugs may not feel the hits and keep advancing toward you. So I plan on shooting 3 well-placed rounds and getting all 3 on target with my 9mm, vis-a-vis getting fewer hits with my .45. The best caliber is the one YOU can shoot accurately under ALL conditions. A 9mm or .45 caliber hole in the heart/lungs or head are probably equally deadly. Some say Beginners discuss the perfect Caliber; Amateurs discuss the perfect Gun; and Pros discuss ACCURACY, TRAINING, and PRACTICE.
A recent, random statistical study of 529 respondents to a GunReports.com survey question “Is the 9mm suitable for self defense?” showed a strong 88% preference for the 9mm round. There were 467 “Yes” votes for the 9mm and 62 “No” votes. Several respondents added a qualified comment that the correct ammo (124 to 147 grain hollow point factory loads with a speed of between 1150 to 1200 ft/sec.) should be used with the 9mm for self defense.
Usually for a first pistol for self-defense, I would recommend a 9mm made by a major manufacturer and 124-grain JHP ammo. Again, 115 grain FMJ 9mm ammo is fine for practice and plinking. The price difference in ammo will allow you to spend more time in Training, which for most means better comfort, accuracy, and proficiency. The best gun accessory you can buy is a pallet of practice ammo. I believe ACCURACY is much more important than EQUIPMENT or caliber!
Don’t skimp and use cheap commercial ammunition or reloads. They may have low-performance bullets, light target-shooting powder charges, or substandard cases or primers that could cause misfires or other problems. Also, do not use your friend’s extra-deadly self-defense handloads or reloads. First, hand-loading by fallible individuals means you might have split cases, loose crimps, high powder charges, low powder charges, zero powder charges, loose primers, or oil-contaminated primers — any one of which could spell disaster in a critical self-defense encounter. So, buy brandname jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) ammunition designed for self-defense, such as Federal Hydra-Shok, Remington Golden Saber, Speer Gold Dot, or Winchester Silvertip. So you will feel reassured when you press the trigger, the gun will fire and the bullet will perform as necessary.
Of course, I strongly recommend participating in a Fundamentals of Firearms Safety and Shooting Class under the guidance of a professional and certified instructor, especially before you purchase your self-defense gun. This will help you learn the correct basics of safe gun handling and use so you don’t have to overcome and unlearn bad habits later and relearn proper fundamentals. Also, you can shoot various types and calibers of guns to help you make your purchase decision. It will enhance your techniques, tactics, and understanding and help you be a more accurate shooter to defend your live and the lives of your loved ones. A small investment for a big payoff!
* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and a certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.